Hit-and-Run Deaths Stir Call for Traffic Lights in National City

Times Staff Writer

East 18th Street in National City, where a pregnant woman and her 5-year-old daughter were killed by a hit-and-run driver, is not a big-city thoroughfare. Nor is it part of some sleazy, dead-cat slum. It has the look and feel of a gentle country road.

But residents and merchants along the way say the stillness is often broken by cars and trucks going much faster than the 35-m.p.h. limit.

Martha Lidia Zamudio, 25, and her daughter, Lili Beth Zamudio, became the latest victims Thursday of what people in the area characterize as apathy by city officials. They complain that the mother and child were not the first people to have died on the street in traffic mishaps, and they say that most of the fatal accidents have occurred in the last two years.


Samantha Garcia, who works at her brother’s Carnitas La Hacienda, a Mexican eatery a block from where the Zamudios were killed, said Friday that residents and business people along East 18th have petitioned the city for years to put up stop signs and traffic lights.

Tessie Gasmin, a spokeswoman for the National City Engineering Department, said: “The traffic engineer has advised us not to give out any answers about that, so we have no comment.”

The National City Police Department and the San Diego County coroner’s office were unable Friday to confirm the number of traffic-related fatalities on East 18th. But Lt. Mike Connelly, an investigator with the National City police, said: “I do know the number is high. . . . I just don’t know how many there have been.”

The latest victims were the 35th and 36th countywide.

Shortly after Thursday’s accident, police arrested a 19-year-old National City man. He was held on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run. But Friday, the case took a bizarre turn when police announced that they had arrested the wrong man.

“Our main suspect is still at large,” Connelly said.

He said that the 19-year-old spent the night in County Jail, but that National City police received a call Friday morning from “an anonymous female” who told them they had the wrong person. Connelly said they now believe the suspect is Pablo Salvador Cabrera, 22, who lives in the 5500 block of Potomac in Southeast San Diego. Connelly said Cabrera eluded a police stakeout Friday afternoon, “And now, we have no idea where he is.”

People in the neighborhood said the victim, whose baby was due next month, left the Mademoiselle beauty salon in the 2800 block of East 18th about 3:45 p.m. She walked a block west and ordered carne asada “to go” from the restaurant but never came back to pick it up.

She walked another block and bought a soda at George’s Liquor, said Steve Zora, who owns the store. She and her little girl then got halfway across the street.

Witnesses told police that the victims were dragged a short distance and that the driver made no attempt to stop. The tragedy occurred at 3:51 p.m. in the 2600 block of East 18th, near La Siesta Way.

Garcia, of the Mexican food shop, is “fed up” with all of the accidents on East 18th.

“Some of these people drive 70 miles an hour along here,” she said. “There’s not a traffic light for miles. And there’s lots of kids around. There’s an elementary school not far away.”

“Some old man died at the corner of Prospect and 18th not too long ago,” said Zora, the liquor store owner. “He wasn’t a pedestrian; he was in his car, and it collided with another car. The police know how bad it is here, and most places they put up signs. At least they do when somebody dies, don’t they? But not here. Everybody’s too poor, I guess, so nobody cares.”

Edgar Monroy, National City traffic engineer, said a four-way stop sign was installed recently at 18th and Prospect.

Was that in response to a fatal accident?

“I don’t recall,” he said. “Really, we’re very objective about these things. We adhere to state (traffic) warrants and go mostly by traffic volume. If we honored every request after an accident, we’d have lights on every block.”

Sitting inside her brother’s restaurant, Samantha Garcia said the best deterrent isn’t necessarily tougher sentences. She’d settle for a couple of traffic lights.

“A tough sentence isn’t going to bring that mother back,” she said. “But a stop sign or a traffic light might have kept it from happening in the first place.”