The 20-year-old man charged with murder in connection with a hit-and-run crash that killed a Los Angeles police officer and injured another pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance Wednesday.
Mynor Enrique Varela, 20, of Harbor City, entered the Long Beach courtroom in a wheelchair, apparently suffering from a leg injury his attorney said he sustained several months ago.
Prosecutors charged Varela earlier Wednesday with charged with murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and leaving the scene of an accident. He faces two additional felony counts of assault on a peace officer, and a special circumstance of second-degree murder of a peace officer.
Varela was ordered back in court June 11.
After the hearing, his attorney, Regina Filippone, said it was "very, very early on" in the case and further investigation is needed. She declined to elaborate on the crash, including who else was in the vehicle.
"We don't know what happened out there yet," Filippone said. "Until then, he's not guilty."
Some of Varela's family members in attendance were emotional as they watched the brief hearing.
Varela was arrested Tuesday after detectives determined he was driving the Chevrolet Tahoe that broadsided a LAPD patrol car driven by Officer Roberto Sanchez.
The collision occurred shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday as Sanchez, 32, and his partner were pursuing another car -- a Chevy Camaro -- on Anaheim Street in the city’s Rolling Hills neighborhood near San Pedro, according to police accounts.
When the driver of the Camaro pulled a sudden U-turn, Sanchez attempted to do the same and was hit by Varela, police allege.
The impact was violent enough to crush the driver’s side of the police car. Rescuers had to cut the car open to free Sanchez, a six-year veteran of the LAPD, who was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His partner suffered a broken jaw.
In a felony complaint outlining the murder charge, prosecutors allege Varela "knew or should have known" Sanchez was a police officer "engaged in the performance of duties.” The complaint was worded in a way to give prosecutors some leeway as they try to prove Varela is guilty of murder.
Varela, the complaint states, 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.
Police believe Varela was intentionally following the police cruiser as Sanchez and his partner tracked the Camaro, one official said. The official, however, stopped short of saying Varela is suspected of deliberately ramming the cruiser. Another official said there is no evidence suggesting Varela and the driver of the Camaro coordinated the crash.
The officials would not specify how the two men are connected or provide details about what occurred in the moments before Sanchez began to trail the Camaro. Police also have not said whether Sanchez and his partner had activated the emergency lights and siren on the patrol car, nor how fast they were traveling while behind the Camaro.
The officials stressed the investigation was far from complete as detectives were still working to fully understand the events leading up to the fatal crash.