In an effort to avoid an accident, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies had just backed off from a relatively low-speed chase when the suspect sped up, ran a red light and crashed into another car in Lakewood, killing a couple and their 2-year-old son, officials said Saturday.
The Friday night pursuit, which patrol officers had just turned over to a sheriff's helicopter, was a textbook example of a safe chase, said Deputy Angie Pruett, a spokeswoman for the department, "and it still had an unhappy ending."
Kevin Hung Nhieu, 31, the driver of the car, and his wife, Linda Dung Nhieu, 27, were pronounced dead at the scene of the 9 p.m. crash at Del Amo and Paramount boulevards, Pruett said. The boy, Brian Nhieu, was taken to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A taxicab was also struck in the collision, and an unidentified passenger was treated for minor injuries at Lakewood Regional Medical Center.
The suspect, Juancho Lopez Rells, 22, who was wanted for attempting to cash a bad check, suffered a broken leg in the accident and is being held on suspicion of murder, Pruett said.
The incident began shortly before 9 p.m., sheriff's officials said, when Rells attempted to pass a check on a closed account at the J.C. Penney store in the Lakewood Center Mall. Security guards called the sheriff's station, assistant manager David Oaks said, and deputies arrived as the suspect was driving out of the parking lot.
The deputies pursued Rells, Pruett said, south on Lakewood Boulevard, then west on Del Amo, where speeds were as slow 20 m.p.h. About a minute into the chase--which lasted 90 seconds--the helicopter arrived and the patrol car backed off, following department policy, said Deputy Diane Hecht.
Although deputies were too far behind to witness the crash, Hecht said, the suspect apparently accelerated before broadsiding the family's car and striking the taxi.
"These cars were just completely demolished," said Merle Spinks, the owner of a nearby television store who videotaped the aftermath of the crash. There is no doubt the suspect's car was traveling at a high rate of speed when it hit the other cars, he said.
The Los Angeles Police Department came under fire this summer after two fatal accidents in the San Fernando Valley, both of which occurred shortly after officers called off high-speed pursuits.
In June, three teen-age boys--two of them brothers--died after the vehicle they were riding in was broadsided by a car driven by a fleeing burglary suspect.
In August, three members of a family were killed when their van was hit by a drunk driver trying to escape police.
After departmental reviews, officers were cleared of any wrongdoing in both crashes.