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Driver Charged in 5-Car Crash That Killed 3 and Injured 9

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Los Angeles man has been charged with vehicular homicide for allegedly driving under the influence of drugs and causing a freak five-car pileup near Exposition Park that left three people dead and nine injured the day after Christmas.

Avery Johnson, 42, was being held Thursday on three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and four felony counts of driving under the influence, Los Angeles police said. Each count carries a maximum of 10 years, but Johnson had a prior drug conviction that could result in a stiffer sentence, said Det. Bill Whittaker at a news conference Thursday.

Johnson was arrested Wednesday at Martin Luther King Jr. / Drew Medical Center as he was being released after treatment of a collapsed lung he suffered in the crash. Police said that preliminary tests at the hospital revealed Johnson was under the influence of cocaine and PCP at the time of the pileup. He had also been driving with an expired driver’s license, they added.

Authorities used the arrest announcement as a reminder not to drive after drinking or taking drugs during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

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“This case serves as a tragic reminder” of the consequences of driving under the influence, said LAPD’s South Traffic Division Capt. Kenneth Garner. He stressed that police will be deployed throughout the city during the next few days to crack down on intoxicated drivers. More than 200 deaths have been caused by drunk or drugged drivers in Los Angeles this year, said Garner.

Pedro Chavez, whose wife, Anabell, was killed in the crash, said Thursday that he was happy to learn police had made an arrest.

“We were so perfect,” he said, his somber voice breaking during a telephone interview. “We loved each other and our daughter and everything changed in a matter of seconds. It’s like if I am missing an arm or a leg. My life is no longer complete.”

Thursday was especially difficult for the 36-year-old Los Angeles man because he told his stepdaughter, still hospitalized with injuries received in the accident, that her mother was dead. He broke the news to 12-year-old Heydi Anabell Villanueva at her hospital bedside.

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“My poor little girl is destroyed,” he said. “I did not know how to tell her. She is taking it bad.”

The girl, who suffered neck and knee injuries, is expected to be released today from the hospital. The funeral for her mother will take place Monday afternoon.

How the accident occurred had been a mystery at first. But after more interviews with witnesses and a reconstruction of events, police identified Johnson as the driver of the 1985 Buick Regal that triggered the chain reaction collision last Sunday near 42nd Street and Normandie Avenue.

Johnson’s Buick, with no passengers, was traveling 60 mph in a 35-mph zone when it hit the rear of a pickup truck being driven by Oscar Arguello and carrying Anabell Chavez and her daughter, police said. That set off a chain of swerves and collisions, involving three more vehicles.

Killed were Arguello, 32; Chavez, 29; and Kevin Steward, 40, who was driving another pickup. Seven other people were treated for minor injuries that day and soon released from various hospitals.

On Thursday, police said that no bail had been set for Johnson. They released no details about his occupation or family. He is to be arraigned Monday.


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