A Santa Ana man plowed his Cadillac into a Costa Mesa playground filled with preschoolers Monday evening, killing two children and injuring at least five other people in what police believe was an act of revenge against the school.
The car smashed through the play area of the Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center shortly after 5 p.m., turning a yard filled with more than 40 laughing children into a field of shrieking boys and girls.
"We believe that he intentionally ran into the playground," said Lt. Ron Smith of the Costa Mesa Police Department. "It looked like he made a deliberate turn into the playground, striking seven people. . . . We don't know what his reasons were. There may be an indication that something went on there between him and the people who worked there about four to five years ago."
Police found the dazed driver, Steve Allen Abrams, 39, still sitting in the driver's seat when they arrived.
Abrams, who worked for Ticket Shack, a Costa Mesa ticket agency a few blocks from the school, is being held on two counts of murder.
Officers immediately hauled Abrams away in handcuffs, whisking him past a horrified mob of neighbors, parents and workers from a nearby church who jeered and cursed the suspect.
Witnesses told police that Abrams accelerated into the schoolyard at about 35 or 40 mph, crashing through the fence and into a tree, trapping two boys and a girl under his 1967 copper-colored Cadillac.
Police found no skid marks or other indication that Abrams attempted to stop. There were no signs of alcohol or drug use, police said.
"When he was arrested, he didn't express any remorse, and he didn't say anything about it being an accident," Smith said.
Police said they did not know the possible nature of the dispute between Abrams and the day-care center, but they did not believe he currently had a child at the center. One day-care employee said Abrams' beef was with the previous owner of the center but had no other details. Police said none of the teachers they interviewed at Southcoast had heard of Abrams.
About 30 minutes before the tragedy, Abrams was involved in a hit-and-run incident on the Costa Mesa Freeway, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Abrams and a female passenger were heading north on the freeway near MacArthur Boulevard at 4:35 p.m., tailgating a green Toyota Camry. When the Camry slowed down, Abrams rammed the car and then sped away, authorities said. One occupant in the Camry suffered minor injuries.
Abrams' Cadillac was spotted near the preschool about half an hour later. According to witnesses he drove past the playground, made a U-turn, then crashed through the fence. He was alone in the car.
A boy and girl trapped beneath the Cadillac were killed. Sierra Soto, 4, was pronounced dead at the scene and Brandon Wiener, a 3-year-old boy, died at 7 p.m. at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, police and hospital officials said.
A third preschooler, Victoria Sherman, 5, was in critical condition Monday night at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. The other children--2-year-old Jasmine Saltzman and 3-year-old Ian Wright--suffered minor injuries and were released from Hoag on Monday night.
Danielle Diaz-Knecht, a 24-year-old teacher's aide, was outside watching over the playing preschoolers when she was sideswiped by the Cadillac, cutting her hands and body. She spent the night at UCI Medical Center in Orange.
"I had a couple of kids by the swing. All of a sudden I didn't hear anything. I just got hit, and I just fell. I felt like something was going to come again," a tearful Diaz-Knecht said from the hospital. "I was putting my hands up and curling up and it hit my hand again. I remember seeing all the kids falling, everyone screaming.
"I got up and I tried to move kids out of the way . . . out of the yard so they wouldn't see anything. Everyone was screaming. I saw a little girl lying by the sandbox not moving."
Neighbors sprinted into the playground once they heard the crash and children's screams, and futilely attempted to lift the car off the pinned preschoolers.
"You feel so helpless because you can't pull them out. They were pretty lifeless," said Adam Brown, a youth pastor from the Lighthouse Coastal Community Church, just across Magnolia Street from the school.
Brown said emergency crews were on the scene within minutes, just as many parents drove up to pick up their waiting children.
Sean Peco, 35 of Laguna Beach, showed up at the center to pick up his 2-year-old son, Nicholas McHardy.
"It was complete pandemonium," he said.
Nicholas had been attending the center only a month or two. Nicholas' mother, Carolyn McHardy, had sent him there because it was around the block from where they lived.
Peco said his son had facial fractures and was heavily sedated in critical condition at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. "It looks bad," he said. "He's got raccoon eyes."
About 80 youngsters attend the preschool and regular school program at the educational center, a teacher said.
One witness who had been driving by the school said he watched Abrams accelerate down Santa Ana Avenue and sail through the fence, sending a blue and yellow jungle gym flying into the street and narrowly missing a small, cream-colored dollhouse just feet away from the tree that stopped the speeding Cadillac cold.
"The guy never stopped. It was full bore--full bore," said Jack Popov, 40, of Costa Mesa, who was driving down the same street.
Popov and a handful of others grabbed a jack to try to lift the car off the three trapped preschoolers but abandoned the effort because they feared injuring the children further. The Costa Mesa Fire Department arrived minutes later.
"When somebody screamed, 'There are kids under the car!' we just tried to lift it up," Popov said. "There was a day-care worker who knew the little girl, screaming at her, 'We'll get you out!' I'm pretty sure she was already dead."
Popov also said Abrams appeared to be slumped over the wheel just seconds before his car flew into the playground.
In Santa Ana, Abrams' neighbor Leroy Montoya said the suspect was a friendly and familiar face on the block. Abrams and his 20-year-old daughter were "very good people, always saying hi to people. He lets the kids down the street mow his lawn for money."
Of the preschool tragedy, Montoya said: "I can't believe that. . . . He doesn't drink or anything. . . . It was an accident."
Added Abrams' brother Robert: "We think it's an accident."
Abrams' 20-year-old daughter works at Ticket Shack with her father and drove to work with him each day, neighbors said.
Long after the unmarked coroner's van had left with the body of Sierra Soto, friends, co-workers and parents still gathered at the site of the preschool.
Walking down the street with their hands clutched together, two little girls and their mother came to find out who had been hurt. "Is it Sierra?" one girl asked.
"Yes," answered a grief counselor.
"She died?" There was a pause.
"Oh my God," cried one little girl with braces on her teeth.
"I'm so sorry," said a man in a white police chaplain's jacket. "I'm so sorry."
Times staff writers Elaine Gale, Jeff Gottlieb, Karen Alexander, Seema Mehta, Matthew Ebnet, Eleanor Yang, Kate Folmar and Daniel Yi also contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Car Plows Into Daycare Playground
A driver intentionally crashed his car into a Costa Mesa daycare center playground Monday evening, killing two children and injuring four others and a teacher, police said.
How Tragedy Unfolded
1. Car passes daycare center
2. Driver makes U-turn
3. Accelerates to 40 mph, slams into playground
Source: Lt. Ron Smith, Costa Mesa Police
Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times