A KABC radio talk show host who left the scene of a fatal traffic collision and reported to his late night broadcast shift was free on bail Friday after his early morning arrest on suspicion of felony hit-and-run.
Ira Fistell, 53, was taken into custody by Los Angeles police after finishing his five-hour broadcast at 4 a.m. Friday.
Police say that Fistell's wife, Tonda, is also under investigation for allegedly telling authorities she had been driving Fistell's car when the accident occurred shortly after 10 p.m. at Venice and Hauser boulevards. In fact, police said, Tonda was summoned to the accident by her husband, who took a cab to the radio studio about a mile away.
Killed in the crash was Jaynna Banks, 16, of Culver City, a passenger in the car that collided with Fistell's vehicle. She was pronounced dead on arrival late Thursday at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center. Josh DeJean, 19, the driver, was in stable condition at Midway Hospital Medical Center with a broken bone in his neck.
At Midway Hospital, family members and friends gathered in a somber vigil, waiting for news of DeJean's condition.
"God kept him here and now it's the doctors' time to pull him through," said a close family friend.
"We are all holding up OK," said Nancy DeJean, Josh's sister.
On Friday afternoon, police were still investigating who was at fault in the accident and whether there was any criminal liability.
"When the case is submitted to the district attorney in the next few days, a determination will be made on what, if any, additional charges will be filed," said Police Lt. John Dunkin. KABC radio officials refused to comment on the tragedy, but did say that Fistell, who hosts an eclectic show in an authoritative style, would not report to work Friday night due to the stress.
"We have mutually agreed he could take the day off," said station spokesman Bill Lennert. "He is scheduled to return on Monday at the normal time. But I would imagine if he felt he wanted to take the day off (again) I'm sure we'd be willing to let me do that."
A station spokesman said Fistell did not mention the collision on the air Thursday night. According to a producer of the show, the first hour featured a live guest, actress Sherry Glaser, star of the one-woman play "Family Secrets." Most of the remaining open forum was taken up with phone calls about the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
An attorney for the Fistell family, Marc R. Staenberg, acknowledged in a telephone interview that Fistell was driving the car involved in the fatal accident and did eventually leave the scene in order to arrive at work in time for his 11 p.m. broadcast. But Staenberg said that Fistell, a non-practicing attorney with a law degree from the University of Chicago, did not mislead police when questioned at the radio studio during advertising breaks.
"He didn't leave the scene (immediately.) He didn't keep driving. He stopped, pulled over, spoke to paramedics and waited for his wife to show up," the lawyer said. "He (then) got into a cab and said, 'I have a show to do. They know where I am.' "
Fistell's wife, Staenberg added, at first apparently misled police by telling them she was in her husband's auto when it collided with DeJean's car. But she did not tell them she was driving the vehicle, nor did Fistell ask her to, the lawyer added.
"She, I think, indicated at first she was in the car. I think because how else would it make sense that she (could) explain how it happened. (Then) she realized it wasn't necessary and not appropriate. (Fistell) did not indicate to her she should say that she was driving the car."
According to police spokesman Dunkin, Mrs. Fistell, who works as a nurse, did indeed claim to have driven the car, "at least initially."
"But after listening to what he had to say and comparing it with information at the scene, officers felt they had sufficient probable cause to arrest him," Dunkin said.
The spokesman refused to say what Fistell told officers, nor would he release details about the accident, saying it was under investigation.
According to Staenberg, Fistell was turning left from Venice onto Hauser when he saw a car speeding toward him in an erratic manner. The lawyer said that Fistell stopped his car and the oncoming car hit him and careened into a utility pole.
"He got out of his car, saw what he could do to help the people. Others were around. Someone called 911. Fire and paramedics came. He called his wife and she showed up.
"He said, 'I have a program to do at 11' and feeling as if he was innocent and the victim," Staenberg continued, "he left his wife and car at the scene and said, 'Tell them what happened.' "
Renee Jackson, who lives nearby, said she went to investigate after hearing the loud collision, in which DeJean's car flipped over.
"As soon as I heard the crash I ran outside," Jackson said. "It shook the whole house."
She said she watched from across the street as neighbors struggled to turn the car over and rescue the two occupants.
Police said Banks was ejected from the car but would not say whether she was wearing a seat belt. In his broadcasts, Fistell has long denounced the need to wear seat belts.
At Fistell's Wilshire district duplex Friday afternoon, a woman identifying herself as his wife came to the front door, but refused to open it. Instead, she gave the reporter the name and phone number of Staenberg.
"It's just upsetting," she said through the wooden door. "He's very stressed out. It's very tragic."
In a late afternoon press release, Staenberg said that Fistell wanted to express "his regret and heartfelt sorrow" to Banks' family. The release also asserted that Fistell was a victim of the accident because the other car hit his.
Fistell was freed on $20,000 bail about 7 a.m. and ordered to report to a municipal arraignment court March 17, police said. If formally charged by county prosecutors with leaving the scene of a serious injury accident, Fistell--if convicted--could face up to four years in state prison.
A history and sports buff who spent 15 years at KABC radio before being fired in 1992, Fistell returned full time to the station in December to replace retired late-night host Ray Briem.
In a recent interview, the Chicago native described how "I like to sit back and relax and really communicate with an audience--almost like family. The one thing I really missed after I left (KABC in 1992) was communicating with the audience. It's like having an extended family."
Robert Koehler contributed to this story.