JoAnnie Duran was stopped at a red light when her sister’s fiance called. She struggled to make out most of his words, but finally two of them stuck: “Sandra’s dead.”
Duran pulled into a gas station parking lot and sobbed, but couldn’t bring herself to say the words out loud. She had Sandra’s 12-year-old son in the car with her. How could she possibly break it to him? And how could it be true? Her sister had called her just 20 minutes earlier to tease her about a video she’d posted on Facebook.
Even now, more than two weeks since her older sister’s death, she cannot accept the way it happened. Officials say a drunk driver ran a red light, smashing into Sandra’s car that Sunday morning — an hour or so after the sisters worshipped together at church.
The driver — who faces murder, vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated charges in connection with the Feb. 19 crash — is an immigrant in the country illegally who has been deported from the United States at least five times, according to police and court records.
Estuardo Alvarado, 45, was fleeing the scene of a traffic accident at a “high rate of speed” when he smashed his vehicle into a car driven by Sandra Duran, according to Det. William Bustos of the LAPD’s Valley Traffic Division.
Duran, 42, suffered serious injuries and later died. The two other people in the car — her 18-year-old son, Christian, and his girlfriend — were treated for minor injuries. Alvarado was arrested after being transported to a hospital, Bustos said.
Alvarado has been removed from the U.S. and sent to Mexico five times since 1998, most recently in 2011, according to Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Mexican citizen has never held legal status in the U.S., according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Duran’s death started to garner national attention on Tuesday morning when Fox News picked up a Los Angeles Daily News report about the crash, in which the victim’s sister expressed concern over Alvarado’s immigration status.
“It’s a great concern because this could have been prevented,” the victim’s sister, Los Angeles police Officer Lisa Morales, told the newspaper. “It’s sad and it’s unfortunate. It’s going to happen not just to my family but to other families.”
Seated in the living room of his Arleta home Tuesday morning, Santos Duran stared at a memorial of flowers, white candles and photos of his second-oldest daughter.
"I often wonder, Why us?” he said, pausing to look toward heaven. “But I can accept it, because the man up there knows we're all just passing through.”
He said he’s haunted by the thought that his daughter’s death was avoidable, knowing that Alvarado remained in the country given his criminal history. But he is also worried that his daughter's death could be used as a political weapon against huge swaths of immigrants in the country illegally.
"It's ruined our life. This person had DUIs and deportations,” he said. “But whatever I say now isn't going to bring my daughter back. I worry, I worry about the people that are here already and settled here already and have families already and have their kids in school. I worry for those people."
Sandra Duran’s mother, Carmen Duran, said she has a simple question for Alvarado about that Sunday morning:
“ ‘How come you didn't stay home? You could've stayed home.’ Knowing he was drunk and driving," she said, sighing. "It doesn't have to be about immigration and all this. There are people who are from here and they go out and kill other people, too. It's not only people from Mexico or anything like that. It just happened to be that he's from Mexico. There's different races …."
Her husband cut in to finish her thought:
"… and we all make mistakes,” he said.
Santos Duran has forgiven Alvarado, but he said that beyond that he tries not to think about him much. This is a time, he said, to remember his daughter, who worked for insurer Health Net.
Sandra’s family members remember her as a doting mother and a vivacious presence in the home she shared with her parents and her sons, Christian, 18, and Jacob, 12. On weekends, Sandra — who found great joy in making her loved ones their favorite foods — woke up early to make her parents a breakfast of toast, sausage and scrambled eggs. Anytime her boys were hungry, even late at night, she made them their favorite meal: pancakes. She loved to surprise her fiance, Rodrigo Macias, with fresh brownies and every Thanksgiving she buttered the family's turkey.
Her family members spent Tuesday watching old cell phone videos of Sandra. There was the one JoAnnie filmed on Thanksgiving, when everybody had their eyes closed during a prayer, until the camera cut to Sandra. Ever the performer, she sensed the spotlight on her and struck a pose. In another video filmed on her brother’s birthday, Sandra twirled her hair and broke out in a deep belly laugh.
Santos Duran closed his eyes for a moment. “That’s her laugh,” he said, mournfully.
Alvarado, who remains jailed in lieu of $2.1-million bail, has been arrested several times in Los Angeles, according to court records. He pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and impeding traffic in 2011, and pleaded no contest to separate charges of driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license in the 1990s, court records show. He has also been cited for marijuana possession twice, records show.
His next court date is scheduled for March 14.
The case marks the latest in a series of deaths that officials attribute to immigrants in the country illegally. Though studies have found that immigrants, whether in the country legally or not, commit crimes at lower rates than native born Americans, the killings have become a flashpoint in the national debate over so-called “sanctuary cities” and immigration enforcement policies.
The 2015 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco drew national outrage when it was revealed that her accused killer had been deported from the U.S. five times. President Trump has promised to revoke federal funding from cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles whose governments have refused to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement actions.
The relatives of three Californians who authorities say were killed by immigrants here illegally were Trump’s guests during a speech delivered to Congress last week.
During the speech, the president chastised opponents of his hard-line immigration stance, asking them what they would say to a family who “loses their jobs, their income or a loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”
For the Duran family, the focus remains on Sandra.
Someone visits the cemetery every day, her father said. To remind her that she’s loved, they show up with cupcakes or with fries and hamburgers from In-N-Out — her favorite foods.
Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.
5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about Sandra Duran’s life.
12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the Duran family.
10:35 a.m.: This article was updated with additional information from court records and comments from an LAPD detective.
This article was originally published at 9:15 a.m.