Driver Error Blamed in Market Crash
Human error was the only possible cause of the summer tragedy at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market when an elderly man drove through a crowd of shoppers, killing 10 people, according to a California Highway Patrol report obtained by The Times.
The preliminary report leaves the decision on whether to criminally charge the driver, 86-year-old George Russell Weller, to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. A spokesman for Cooley’s office said any decision was several weeks away.
The summary of the investigation by a special CHP unit meticulously excluded other possible causes, such as weather or mechanical failure of the 1992 Buick LeSabre that Weller drove. The report states that Weller caused a minor traffic accident immediately before he accelerated and plowed through dozens of pedestrians at the popular street market, coming to rest 995 feet away.
“During this 995 feet, 10 persons were killed and 63 injured. If Mr. Weller had placed his foot on the brake while traveling westbound on Arizona Avenue through the Farmers’ Market street fair, the Buick would have stopped,” the CHP concluded.
Weller was taking prescription medication that causes nausea and dizziness, and he suffered from arthritis. He had undergone hip replacements that reduced his mobility and may have led to Weller’s placing his foot on the gas instead of the brake, according to the preliminary investigative report.
Weller reached speeds of 60 mph or more through the market with his “eyes open, hands on the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position,” according to the report.
Witnesses told investigators that he didn’t slow down or step on the brakes and that they heard only the revving of the Buick’s engine. He stared straight ahead and steered through the market, avoiding parked cars on either side of the street, the report said.
Weller, who is a longtime Santa Monica resident, “was aware of the conditions in the vicinity of the Farmers’ Market street fair,” the report said.
CHP investigators interviewed more than 600 witnesses, viewed videotapes and photographs and did an elaborate, second-by-second reconstruction of the July 16 incident.
They are expected to complete their investigation by Friday, and the Santa Monica Police Department, which asked the CHP for assistance, could make a recommendation to prosecutors by mid-December. Both police and prosecutors have received the report. Weller could face charges of involuntary manslaughter or murder.
The report provides the first authoritative account of the accident, which shocked the seaside city and prompted calls for tougher driving restrictions for senior citizens.
The incident began when Weller drove his Buick to the Santa Monica Post Office on 5th Street, where he pulled alongside a mailbox and dropped in a letter from the passenger seat. He then slid over to the driver’s seat and turned onto Arizona Avenue.
At 1:46 p.m., his car ran at low speed into a Mercedes-Benz, driven by Pauline Kokozyon, which had stopped on Arizona Avenue and was preparing to turn onto 4th Street as the light turned green. He rubbed his right front bumper against the left rear bumper of the Mercedes, pushing the other car into the crosswalk. Both cars suffered minor damage.
The Buick then steadily gained speed as Weller left the intersection, heading toward the street market 245 feet away.
Weller’s foot was on the gas pedal, and “there were no mechanical conditions identified that could have caused the Buick to accelerate on its own,” investigators wrote. No canes, carpets or anything else got in the way to inadvertently jam the pedal, the report said.
There was also no evidence that he was unconscious or having a seizure, according to the report.
He sped past an orange “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD” sign and into the market along Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd streets, the report said.
Weller then drove into the entrance of the market, where he hit the first victim, a homeless man from Louisiana. Weller’s car then struck one victim after another, killing a 7-month-old baby, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team and an elderly Lithuanian immigrant, among others.
Those who died are Molok Ghoulian, 62, and Brendon Esfahani, 7 months, both from West Los Angeles; Gloria Gonzalez, 35, of Venice; Movsha Hoffman, 73, of Santa Monica; Leroy Lattier, 55, from Louisiana; Diana McCarthy, 41, and Kevin McCarthy, 50, of Venice; Lynne Ann Weaver, 47, of Woodland Hills; Cindy Palacios Valladares, 3, of Koreatown, and Theresa Breglia, 50, from the Bronx, N.Y.
Through the 2 1/2 blocks of the market, Weller kept the car within the 20-foot-wide pedestrian walking area as he sped past the fruit and vegetable stands. Investigators didn’t rule out “pedal error” -- applying pressure on the gas pedal instead of the brakes -- as a possible explanation. The brakes on his Buick were functioning properly, according to the report.
Weller had been involved in two collisions, in 1998 and 1999, according to the report. The CHP also cited a videotape showing Weller backing over a retaining wall after attending a party in Montecito in 1993.
He had a valid driver’s license, which he had renewed in November 2000 after passing written and vision exams.
The crash set off debate on licensing for elderly drivers. The day after the crash, CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick called on the Legislature to tackle the issue of whether seniors should undergo special testing. No action has been taken.
Weller was not required to take a driving test in 2000, when he filled out a form saying he had no medical problems that would affect his ability to drive safely, the report said.
But medical records show that he had “several known orthopedic conditions that could have affected his ability to operate a motor vehicle safely,” according to the CHP. He had two hip replacements and had been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, lumbar arthritis and osteoarthritis. He was also taking several prescription drugs, including Lipitor for high cholesterol and Quinine Sulfate for leg cramps.
The DMV gave him a disability placard in 1994, after Weller’s doctor noted in a form that he had a disorder that affected his mobility. Weller walks with a cane.
The CHP report suggested that Weller appeared to be purposely driving through the market. “The majority of the witnesses observed no slowing or brake lights, only the acceleration and hearing the revving of the Buick’s engine. Mr. Weller appeared to be steering through the market,” the CHP concluded.
Witnesses interviewed Wednesday by The Times agreed.
“He looked determined, absolutely determined,” said Penny Tremper, who owns the Jojoba Obispo Farms booth at Arizona Avenue and the Third Street Promenade. The Buick smashed with sickening force into a 3-year-old girl in a stroller right in front of the stand, killing her.
“I was so amazed by his expression.... I thought he would be terror-struck or unconscious or having a stroke. I didn’t think he’d look that determined. The only other word I could think of was kamikaze. He looked like he was getting ... out of Dodge.”
Gary Tremper said he heard an impact and peered east down Arizona in time to see debris soaring through the air. “I could not imagine what in the world was happening. The only thing I could think of was that it was a terrorist act,” he said.
Like hundreds of other shoppers and farmers, the Trempers were interviewed by the Santa Monica Police Department and the CHP. When CHP investigators learned that Gary Tremper had taken photos of the aftermath -- including of victims lying on the pavement -- they requested a copy of his negatives.
Dave Eakin, who sells oranges, said he had just seconds to jump out of the way before Weller sped down toward the 2nd Street end of the market.
“It was like a heavy rumbling like an earthquake or a whish like a wave coming at you,” Eakin said. “All of a sudden, there’s something pushing tables, knocking people to the side, knocking over canopies. It looked like a bulldozer pushing debris at a dump, but it was moving much faster and coming straight at us.”
Eakin said he didn’t think Weller had acted on purpose. “It was a horrible, horrible accident,” Eakin said.