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Driver accused of killing 3 teenagers in DUI crash pleads not guilty to murder

Driver accused of killing 3 teenagers in DUI crash pleads not guilty to murder
Bani Duarte (Courtesy of Huntington Beach Police Department)

A woman charged with murder and driving under the influence in a March 29 crash that killed three Las Vegas teenagers in Huntington Beach pleaded not guilty Monday in Orange County Superior Court.

Bani Duarte, 27, of San Clemente was charged Friday with three counts of murder and one count of driving under the influence causing injury. She also faces a possible sentencing enhancement on allegations of inflicting great bodily injury, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

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If convicted, she could be sentenced to 51 years to life in state prison, according to prosecutors.

Duarte was taken into custody about 1 p.m. Sunday in Downey on a $5-million warrant after investigators determined she may have intended to flee the country to avoid prosecution, authorities said. She is being held in Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.

She is expected to appear Thursday in Superior Court in Westminster for a hearing to review her bail.

Duarte, who is listed in jail records as a receptionist, was initially arrested after the crash on suspicion of driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter and posted $100,000 bail three days later.

"As the investigation continued, more evidence was obtained," authorities wrote in a news release Sunday. "Investigators received information the female driver was possibly intending on fleeing the country to avoid prosecution."

The teenagers who were killed were visiting Southern California from Las Vegas for spring break when the fiery crash occurred shortly after 1 a.m. at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street.

Authorities allege Duarte was traveling north on PCH in a Hyundai Sonata when she rear-ended the teens' Toyota, which was stopped at a red light at the intersection with Magnolia.

The impact pushed the Toyota through the intersection and into a pole, and it burst into flames, prosecutors said.

Fry writes for the Daily Pilot.

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