Trial Opens in Death of Mother Struck by Car in Newport Alley

Times Staff Writer

In a case that caused public outrage last September, a 19-year-old Huntington Park man went on trial Tuesday, accused of running down and killing a Newport Beach mother as she stood with two of her children in the alley behind their home.

The issues for the 12-member jury were sharply defined. The prosecutor demanded that the man be convicted of murder, but the defense attorney said it was more like a manslaughter case.

The jury was also told to prepare itself for some horrifying evidence--a videotape that shows the last seconds of the woman’s life. “The last frame you will see is Debbie Killelea standing directly in front of the hood, maybe a foot away, staring directly down into the driver’s compartment--a look that I cannot describe to you was on her face,” the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney Ralph Bencangey conceded in his opening statement that his client, Danny David Ornelas, was the driver of the car and that he had been drinking. But he told the jury in Orange County Superior Court in Westminster that Ornelas should be tried for “gross vehicular manslaughter” and not murder.


Ornelas is on trial for second-degree (unpremeditated) murder in the Sept. 1 death of Killelea, a 37-year-old mother of three. She was fatally injured in the alley behind her Newport Beach home when the car slammed into her.

‘Not a Murder Case

“I can tell you right now that my client did drive the automobile,” Bencangey told the jury. But, he added, “this is not a murder case . . . I firmly believe, and will present to you reasons that this case should have been a question of whether there was guilt or innocence of gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol.”

The maximum penalty for gross vehicular manslaughter is 10 years in prison. The penalty for second-degree murder ranges from 15 years to life in prison.


The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals, said in his opening statement that he will prove Ornelas deliberately steered the car he was driving towards Killelea.

Goethals said to the jury, “In this case, ladies and gentlemen, it will probably be no surprise to you that the critical issue probably will be what was going on in the defendant’s mind at the time certain events took place.

“That’s what you’re going to have decide. . . .

“You will hear evidence that he (Ornelas) was drinking. If you find that he was so drunk that it affected his mental state, you are going to have to find one verdict. If you find on the other that even though he was drinking, he nonetheless was able to harbor what is known in the law as malice aforethought, then you’re going to have to find him guilty of murder.”

Killelea was standing in the alley on Sept. 1 near her home on Balboa Peninsula with her sons, Michael, 10, and Joe, 6. Goethals told the jury that when she saw the car driven by Ornelas speeding down the 20-foot-wide alley, she put her hands on her hips, in a sign of apparent disapproval. Goethals said that Ornelas then aimed the car at her.

The two Killelea boys escaped injury. But Goethals told the jury that a videotape will show that Debbie Killelea was unable to escape.

The fatality enraged residents of Balboa Peninsula who protested that city officials had not done enough to slow traffic and curb drunk driving by teen-agers in the resort community.

The eerie videotape was made by a friend of Ornelas, John Lozano, 18, who testified Tuesday that he was a passenger in the 1984 Nissan SX that Ornelas drove down the alley. Lozano said he had been playing with Ornelas’ video camera as they drove, but he said he did not know it was turned on during the passage down the alley behind Ocean Boulevard.


‘Terrifying’ Scenes

Goethals told the jury that the video camera had been turned on and that the tape will be shown later in the trial. The scenes are terrifying, he said.

“You will see her respond to the defendant’s continuing right down the alley, accelerating directly towards her,” Goethals said. “You will see her move sharply to her left, taking exaggerated steps to get out of the way. . . . And you will see after she does that . . . you will see the car move gradually right.” And finally, he said, the last frame shows Killelea in front of the car’s hood at the instant of collision.

The defense will rebut “sensational type of evidence,” Bencangey told the jury. And apparently referring to the videotape, Bencangey said: “Things are not always what they seem to be with the naked eye.”

Unlike a preliminary hearing last October, which produced tears and emotional scenes from relatives of both Killelea and Ornelas, the first day of the murder trial was generally calm. The victim’s husband and children were not in the courtroom.

Ornelas, wearing a green-and-white long-sleeve shirt and khaki pants, sat by his attorney with no visible emotions throughout the day. He briefly spent some time with his mother and sister in the hallway of the court during a recess. The mother and sister declined to give their names, and they said they had no comment about the trial. But inside the court, as the prosecutor told the jury that Ornelas is guilty of murder, his mother and sister looked concerned and distraught.

The initial witness in the case was George Herrera, 20, of Hacienda Heights, a friend of Ornelas and the owner of the car involved in the fatal incident. He, Ornelas and Lozano drove from Los Angeles County to Newport Beach on Sept. 1 to go body surfing at the Wedge area on Balboa Peninsula. Herrera said the three were drinking malt liquor and rum during the afternoon on the beach. He said that Ornelas and Lozano, late in the afternoon, decided to go back to where the car was parked to get Ornelas’ video camera.

Lozano, the second and final witness of the day, testified that he was surprised when Ornelas proposed moving Herrera’s car to another location from where it was parked. Lozano said he rode in the front passenger seat, holding the video camera, as Ornelas drove.


Lozano said that during the ride down the alley, the car “drifted a little to the left” and then “just veered” to the right. Lozano testified that he saw the two Killelea boys in the alley, but not their mother. He said he did not see Debbie Killelea until after the collision.

Lozano, his voice wavering, said he first saw the dying woman after he crawled out of the overturned car. “The only thing I recall was the lady lying on the floor (the alley), and I turned my eyes away,” Lozano said.

Lozano is scheduled to be cross-examined by defense attorney Bencangey when the trial resumes this morning.