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Crash Blamed on Woman’s Mental Illness

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of a woman accused of stealing an ambulance and smashing it into a car, killing two young men, said Monday they had frantically sought medical help for her in the hours before the crash.

James Kopas of Orange said his sister, Rose V. Failla, 52, of Fullerton, has a long history of mental illness. She began feeling disoriented early Saturday and Kopas’ wife, Susan, sought help from medical facilities and the Orange fire and police departments, the couple said.

“The whole thing could have been avoided completely,” Susan Kopas said.

“I asked [the police] to take her in,’ she said, adding that she told them Failla was severely mentally unbalanced.

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Susan Kopas said she went to pick up her sister-in-law in Fullerton on Saturday morning. (Failla had moved to Orange County from Montana in early January and was staying with an ex-boyfriend, the Kopases said.)

The Kopases and Failla went to a swap meet in Anaheim but left because of Failla’s erratic behavior, Susan Kopas said. She took Failla to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

At the hospital, Failla ran out because she believed there was a bomb in the building, Kopas said.

The two women returned to the Kopases’ home.

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“I left her for a minute to go to the bathroom and she was gone,” Kopas said. “I heard sirens, and I ran outside.”

Neighbors had noticed Failla wandering in their backyard and called authorities, she said.

The officers told Kopas that her sister-in-law did not seem to be a threat to herself or others and declined to take her into custody, Kopas said.

Orange police and fire officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

Kopas said she then took Failla to a mental clinic in Fullerton. In the waiting room, she said, “I took my eyes off her for a minute. Next thing you know she darted out the door. . . . I said, ‘She’s going to hurt herself or hurt someone else.’ ”

According to police, Failla checked herself in at Anaheim Memorial Hospital just before 5 p.m. Anaheim Police Sgt. Joe Vargas said Failla “appeared delusional” when she checked in.

Before a physician could see her, Failla left the emergency room and drove off in an ambulance in which keys had been left, Vargas said.

Less than a mile away, she ran a red light and struck a car at about 55 mph, authorities said. Brandon Tran, 20, and Michael Rebaza, 21, were killed on impact. Failla escaped without serious injury.

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Tran, a computer science major at Fullerton College, and Rebaza, a junior at Cal State Fullerton, had been friends since junior high school, their parents said. Both had immigrated to the United States with their families 10 years ago, Rebaza from Peru and Tran from Vietnam.

The Orange County district attorney’s office Monday filed two counts of manslaughter and one count of auto theft against Failla.

The three felony charges carry a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, said district attorney spokeswoman Tori Richards.

But James Kopas said Failla, who became mentally disturbed after a 1973 divorce, needs medical help, not prison.

“She goes in and out of reality,” her brother said.

Failla is scheduled to be arraigned in Fullerton today.


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