Investigators believe the man who is accused in a weekend hit-and-run crash that killed a Los Angeles police officer and injured another knew the driver of the vehicle that police were trailing when the collision occurred, sources told The Times.
Mynor Varela, 20, is believed to have been intentionally following the LAPD cruiser before Saturday's crash in Harbor City, said a source familiar with the investigation, who requested that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the case.
A second source cautioned that there was no evidence suggesting that Varela coordinated with the chase suspect to ram the squad car.
Varela, of Harbor City, was charged Wednesday with murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, assault on a peace officer and leaving the scene of the accident. He also faces a special circumstance of second-degree murder of a peace officer.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges, and is being held without bail pending a June 11 court hearing. If convicted, prosecutors said, he faces up to life without parole in state prison.
Varela was arrested Tuesday after detectives determined that he was driving the Chevrolet Tahoe that broadsided the LAPD patrol car driven by Officer Roberto Sanchez. Varela was initially detained by police about a mile from the crash after he was seen fleeing the scene, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.
The collision occurred shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday as Sanchez, 32, and his partner were pursuing a Chevy Camaro on Anaheim Street in the city's Rolling Hills neighborhood near San Pedro, according to police accounts of the incident.
When the driver of the Camaro pulled a sudden U-turn, Sanchez tried to do the same and was hit by Varela, police allege.
The impact was so violent that it crushed the driver's side of the police car and rescuers had to cut the car open to free Sanchez. The six-year LAPD veteran was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His partner, Officer Richard Medina, suffered a broken jaw.
By Tuesday, detectives from the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division established that Varela and the Camaro's driver know each other, said multiple department officials with knowledge of the investigation, who requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing. Officials would not specify how the two drivers were connected.
Although one official said police believe Varela intentionally followed the cruiser, that source stopped short of saying that he was suspected of deliberately ramming the patrol car.
In a felony complaint outlining the murder charge, prosecutors allege that Varela "knew or should have known" that Sanchez was a police officer "engaged in the performance of duties." The wording of the complaint allows prosecutors some leeway as they try to prove Varela is guilty of murder — it alleges that he either intended to inflict great bodily injury with the crash or simply used a dangerous and deadly weapon, his SUV, in the commission of the crime.
But details about the crash remain unclear. LAPD officials have not revealed what occurred in the moments before Sanchez began to trail the Camaro, whether the patrol car's emergency lights and sirens were activated, or how fast it was traveling.
Despite initial statements by police that they had not arrested anyone in the case, jail records show Varela was arrested Saturday afternoon and held for an unspecified crime. He was rearrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder, records show.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey were expected to discuss the case at a Thursday morning news conference.
Varela, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, has a valid driver's license with no reportable accidents, citations or suspensions. Initial reports that he may have been intoxicated at the time of the crash were not accurate, police sources said.
After Varela's arraignment Wednesday, his attorney cautioned that it was "very, very early on" in the case.
"We don't know what happened out there yet," Regina Filippone said. "Until then, he's not guilty."
Varela's brother, who was reportedly riding in the car with him at the time of the crash, was also being held, according to police sources and online jail records. But it was not clear if he would be arrested or charged in connection with the crash.
Sanchez was the third LAPD officer to be killed in vehicle crashes this year. In March, Officer Nicholas Lee was killed when an out-of-control truck crushed the patrol car he was driving. And last month, motorcycle Officer Chris Cortijo died from injuries he suffered while he was waiting at a red light and was hit from behind by a woman suspected of being under the influence of drugs.