For family of victim in Venice boardwalk crash, trial stirs painful memories

Trial in 2013 Venice boardwalk crash recalls 'a nightmare come true,' victim's aunt says

The prosecutor held up a picture of a woman with big, bright eyes and asked Christian Casadei to identify her.

"Mia moglie," he said.

My wife, Casadei told jurors through an Italian interpreter.

The woman he married on a summer Saturday two years ago and lost a few weeks later. He testified Monday at the trial of Nathan Campbell, the man accused of plowing his car through the Venice Beach boardwalk in 2013, injuring 17 people and killing Casadei's new wife, Alice Gruppioni.

Taking another trip from Italy to Los Angeles — the city he and Gruppioni had dreamed of visiting together for so long — brought a wave of mixed emotions. He thought back to the moment she realized why he'd taken her to the San Bernardino Mountains.

"When she saw the sign of 'Big Bear,'" Casadei recalled, "she said, 'Oh my God, we are here!'"

Characters in Gruppioni's favorite soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," vacationed in the mountain city, and Casadei planned the visit as a small surprise during their American honeymoon. A couple of days later, on Aug. 3, 2013, Casadei remembered, the couple spent the morning on a tour bus ride through Beverly Hills. Maybe one day, they told each other, they'd come back here with their babies.

"For us," he said, "it was a dream, something like a dream."

They walked the Santa Monica Pier and grabbed a bite at a Mexican restaurant. They made their way to the Venice Beach boardwalk. Casadei remembers seeing a blue car. Everything turned to a blur.

During opening statements at Campbell's trial last month, Deputy Dist. Atty. Victor Avila told jurors that Gruppioni's body was on the hood of Campbell's car for 300 feet before sliding off. Campbell, he said, was angry and aiming at people as he drove through the crowd. Campbell's attorney, James Cooper, said his client didn't act intentionally and was trying to avoid hitting people.

That August, in a different seaside town on the other side of the world, Katia Gruppioni woke to the sound of her phone vibrating off the bedside table and onto the floor. As it fell, she glimpsed her sister-in-law's name on the screen.

"What? Who? What happened?" she asked.

Through the wailing she heard three words: "Alice è morta."

No, she told her sister-in-law. It couldn't be true. Maybe the couple had gotten into an accident, she thought to herself, and when someone called from the U.S. to explain, the message had gotten tangled in translation. Her sister-in-law insisted. She said Casadei had called.

Gruppioni drove through the night to Pianoro, a small Italian town near Bologna, where her brother — Alice Gruppioni's father — lives.

When she arrived, he was waiting for her.

"You will be the only one I will trust," Gruppioni recalled him saying. "If you tell me she's really dead, I will … admit she's dead. So pay attention to what you're saying to me."

The brother and sister walked into another room and fell to their knees, facing each other.

"Just tell me the truth," he begged.

Gruppioni said the words she was just starting to believe herself: "Yes, she is dead."

Her brother, who had suffered a heart attack several years earlier and couldn't bear flying to Los Angeles, had a request: "Go and bring her back."

Gruppioni took the next flight to Los Angeles.

"I took it as a duty," she said.

Memories of that trip in August still feel surreal, she said. Talk of killings and coroners and lawyers. Phone calls to the Italian consulate and the moment she saw Casadei.

"It was like being thrown into a movie," she said. "It was a nightmare come true."

One moment sticks out. She was with a niece, who had made the trip with her, and they were working on how to get the body home to Italy. The two women paused at the same time, thinking of the wedding a few weeks earlier.

"In that moment," Gruppioni said, "we looked one to the other and we said, 'We are choosing her coffin — not a dress, a coffin.'"

Being back in Los Angeles this week, again on her brother's behalf, to attend Campbell's trial and to meet with attorneys representing the family in a civil suit against the city of Los Angeles, has brought back memories of her last trip here and of the niece she lost.

Alice Gruppioni was next in line to run the family's radiator manufacturing business. She was the persevering one, Katia Gruppioni said, the beauty who didn't see how pretty she was until she met Casadei.

"Very tough," Gruppioni said. "Much tougher than I am. Yet a child. Really dreamy, really in touch with her childish side."

On Thursday — the day before Gruppioni and Casadei flew back to Italy, where they'll await the jury's decision — Casadei reflected on what he wanted. He shook his head and his voice dropped to a whisper: "I hope that there's justice somewhere."

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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