The family of a Fullerton woman accused of stealing an ambulance and smashing it into a car frantically sought medical help for her in the hours leading to the fatal crash that killed two young Anaheim men, her brother said Monday.
James Kopas said his sister, Rose V. Failla, has a long history of mental illness. She became 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 Monday in a telephone interview from her Orange home. “I asked [the police] to take her in. I told them she was completely loony tunes.”
The police officers, who were called when Kopas’ neighbors noticed Failla wandering in their backyard early Saturday, told Susan Kopas her sister-in-law did not seem to be a threat to herself or others.
Orange police and fire officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
Kopas said she took Failla to a mental health 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, 52, checked herself in at Anaheim Memorial Hospital just before 5 p.m. Anaheim Police Sgt. Joe Vargas said Failla “appeared delusional” to hospital staff when she checked in.
Before a physician could see her, Failla left the emergency room and, using keys left inside an ambulance, drove off with the vehicle, Vargas said.
Less than a mile from the hospital, she ran a red light at La Palma Avenue and Romneya Drive, striking a Toyota Tercel at about 55 mph. Brandon Tran, 20, and Michael Rebaza, 21, best friends on their way to a pickup basketball game, were killed on impact. Failla was not seriously injured.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office on 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.
The Kopases 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. “She loses control of her actions.”
Susan Kopas said she went to pick up her sister-in-law in Fullerton Saturday morning. Failla relocated to Orange County from Montana in early January and was staying with an ex-boyfriend, the Kopases said.
“She was acting very peculiar,” Susan Kopas said.
She and Failla went to a swap meet in Anaheim but had to leave because of Failla’s erratic behavior, Kopas said. She took her to UCI Medical Center in Orange, but Failla ran out because she believed there was a bomb in the building, Kopas said.
The two women returned to the Kopases’ home in Orange. “I left her for a minute to go to the bathroom, and she was gone,” Kopas said. “I heard sirens, and I ran outside.”
She realized that neighbors had called authorities after seeing Failla wandering outdoors, but police declined to take her into custody, Kopas said. She then took Failla to the Fullerton clinic to see her regular doctor. Again she fled.
“I tried to run as fast as I could, but I couldn’t catch up,” Susan Kopas said. “That was the last time I saw her.”
Neither the family nor authorities knew how Failla got to Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, where the ambulance was stolen.
Failla is scheduled to be arraigned in Fullerton today.
Meanwhile, the families of the victims began preparing for funeral services. Tran’s parents, Steven Tran and Leslie Ly, said they have decided to have a private ceremony.
The Rebazas will hold a public funeral service at the Crystal Cathedral Church in Garden Grove at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Tran, a computer science major at Fullerton College, and Rebaza, a junior at Cal State Fullerton, were 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, where his family was once jailed trying to escape the war-ravaged country.
“He was our only son,” said Steven Tran, 55. “We have to continue our lives without him, and it is very sorrowful.”
On Monday, officials would give no details of how Failla was able to leave in a stolen ambulance.
Experts say ambulance theft is rare and that most companies have policies against leaving keys in parked vehicles.
“Generally, companies’ policies require that the ambulance be locked and secured when nobody is there,” said David Nevins, president of the California Ambulance Assn., an industry trade group.
Decades ago, ambulance operators often left engines running to cut response times, Nevins said. But that changed after officials concluded the time savings were not worth the risk of theft of the vehicles’ medicines and equipment.
“Either we leave someone with the vehicle at all times or secure it by taking the keys,” said Capt. Paul Hunter, of the Orange County Fire Authority, which operates three ambulances and 10 paramedic vans.
Officials with the company that owned the stolen ambulance would not discuss Monday why the vehicle’s keys were left inside but issued a statement expressing sympathy for the victims.
“This tragedy is especially difficult for us who are constantly engaged in the business of saving lives to learn that one of our ambulances was involved in this tragic accident,” said Care Ambulance president Dan Richardson. “We wish to extend our sincere condolences and prayers to the families of Michael Rebaza and Brandon Tran.”