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Driver Guilty of Felony in Market Crash

Times Staff Writers

Rejecting the portrait of an old man who made a tragic mistake in his maroon Buick, a jury Friday found George Russell Weller guilty of felony manslaughter for running down and killing 10 people at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in a case that set off a debate about licensing older drivers.

Weller, 89, was allowed to miss the trial because he is ailing, and he was not in Los Angeles County Superior Court when the verdict was read.

He could be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Jurors, urged by the prosecutor to “listen to the dead,” said they had agreed from the start of their deliberations Oct. 6 that Weller was guilty of a crime that humid summer afternoon three years ago, when he plowed through the popular market just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

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In interviews, jurors said that nine of them felt he acted with gross negligence, the more serious charge and the one the panel eventually chose; three initially felt he was guilty of the lesser crime, misdemeanor manslaughter.

On Friday, the jurors appeared somber as the verdict was read. One bit his lips, another pulled at his chin, a third rubbed his eyes. The hearing lasted less than half an hour; the judge thanked and excused the jury.

Some jurors thought the horrific accident “could have happened to them, it could have happened to anybody,” said juror Thomas Walls, but a review of the evidence “convinced us that this was more than simple negligence.”

Weller was “not a reckless person, but the act was reckless,” juror Cristina de la Rocha said.

Several jurors expressed sorrow, over the trial and the tragedy.

“Mr. Weller was a good man, a good citizen,” said juror Simon Magtibay. “It’s so unfortunate.”

At the heart of the case was whether Weller made a mistake and hit the accelerator when he meant to hit the brake, then panicked and could not correct himself -- a phenomenon known as “pedal error.”

Jurors said no: They agreed that Weller “had adequate time to take evasive action,” Walls said.

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“We have always believed the difficult issues raised by this case needed to be aired in public and decided by a jury,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. “This helps conclude a case that involved incredible human devastation and mayhem.”

When firefighters arrived at the market July 16, 2003, shocked onlookers approached them with dying children in their arms, pleading for help. Lifeless bodies were splayed on the ground, and blood stained the pavement. A body was stuck under Weller’s car. More than 60 people were injured. Fruits, vegetables and crumpled kiosks were scattered about.

Vendors and customers leapt into action, trying to comfort or treat traumatically injured people.

Shamsi Khani, a market regular who was severely hurt, urged rescuers to tend to younger victims. She was rushed by ambulance to the hospital and spent months recovering from injuries, including a broken neck. Khani died last month at 92.

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On Friday, her son said that while he thought putting Weller behind bars would not accomplish anything, the guilty verdicts were “good news for society.”

“It gives the message that we have to do our due diligence regarding our elderly people,” Dan Khani said. “It gives the message we are going to hold elderly people responsible for their actions.”

Jonathan Ahdoot of Rockville, Md., whose grandmother Molok Ghoulian, 62, was killed, said, “I personally am happy he has been found guilty. Running over 10 people is inexcusable. He deserves it.”

Nora Weckler, a 91-year-old Brentwood resident who was steering her blue walker Friday on 2nd Street in Santa Monica, said the incident brought home the message that the government should “check people like me who are still driving” to ensure that they are competent.

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One of Weller’s neighbors said she was saddened by the verdicts.

“This was not a man that ever did any harm to anybody,” said Fran Peskoff, who lives across from Weller and his wife, Harriet, on 25th Street in Santa Monica. “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose. He just had an accident. There’s no way they should have convicted him.”

Peskoff said Weller, who turns 90 on Dec. 7, has been unhappy, reclusive and remorseful since the crash.

White-haired, with a thick mustache and heavy glasses, moving in a wheelchair, Weller attended only the first two hours of the trial. About two weeks ago, he suffered a seizure and lost some use of his hands, according to someone who knows him but refused to be identified by name.

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Among the victims pursuing civil cases against Weller and some public entities is Ilona Lettrich, 62, of Brentwood. At a news conference at her attorney’s office, Lettrich recounted her vain effort to leap out of the path of Weller’s Buick, which struck her, breaking her left ankle and nearly severing three fingers on her right hand that now are permanently bent and lack strength. A hairstylist, Lettrich has had to close her shop. She has no health insurance.

The Hungarian-born woman said her doctors have told her that “I have to create peace in my mind for being an injured woman my whole life.”

As for Weller, she said: “I don’t wish for him to be in a jail. I only wish he would apologize.”

His lawyer, Mark Overland, said he would appeal. He said the prosecution’s emphasis on the tragic and bloody aspects of the case might have influenced the jury.

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“The prosecution played that up -- it was a horrible, horrible accident. It’s very emotional, and it’s difficult for jurors to put those questions out of their minds,” Overland said.

Juror Yolanda Hernandez said she was influenced by two witnesses who testified that immediately after the crash, Weller said that if people had seen him coming through the market, “they should have gotten out of the way.”

Cooley’s office will not recommend a sentence. The verdict leaves to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson the task of deciding whether Weller goes to prison.

Prosecutors suggested that Weller was trying to flee a minor accident when he burst through the barricades across Arizona Avenue in his 1992 LeSabre. The mayhem lasted less than 20 seconds. Among the dead were an infant, a 3-year-old, a married couple, a homeless man and an octogenarian.

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Defense lawyers Overland and Mark Borenstein presented several expert witnesses, including former top California Highway Patrol officials and a UCLA professor, who asserted that Weller experienced the confusion of pedal error. State and federal investigators concluded the same.

But prosecutor Ann Ambrose, eight months pregnant with her second child, delivered a closing argument opposing the idea that 10 violent deaths could be a simple accident. She said she was satisfied with the verdict.

Both sides made Weller’s comments after the accident, to bystanders and police, a major battleground of the trial. The prosecution offered witnesses who described Weller as cold, unconcerned and even arrogant after the crash.

Borenstein focused on Weller’s expressions of sorrow in a two-hour videotape made secretly by Santa Monica police as he was interrogated within an hour of the incident. In it, Weller appeared contrite and apologized for hurting “those poor, poor people.” He said he had tried everything he could think of to stop the car, but could not.

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Shoppers and market workers said Weller repeatedly revved the engine as he passed through the market -- suggesting he was moving his foot on and off the accelerator -- and that he appeared to steer to avoid vehicles parked on each side of the road. All witnesses but one said they never saw brake lights or any other indication that Weller tried to stop the car.

A lawsuit filed after the crash alleged that the sawhorse-style barricade that Weller crashed through when he entered the market provided inadequate protection for shoppers. Last summer, a judge rejected that claim and exonerated the city of Santa Monica, ruling taxpayers were generally not liable for the deaths, injuries or damage.

Weller remains a defendant in numerous lawsuits. His auto insurance coverage is limited to $500,000. Several other public entities connected with the markets have insurance coverage totaling more than $5 million. But the total available is far below the amount being sought by relatives of the dead and by the injured.

The market tragedy led to a reevaluation of California’s rules for licensing older drivers. Weller was not required to take a driving test in 2000, when the DMV renewed his license.

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The DMV plans to begin a pilot program of graduated tests for those seeking to renew driver’s licenses, which is designed to identify and weed out problem drivers. But proposals for mandatory annual road tests for seniors -- such as are required in Illinois -- have been rejected by the California Legislature at the urging of the seniors’ lobby.

martha.groves@latimes.com

john.spano@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Back story

On July 16, 2003, George Russell Weller, then 86, drove at freeway speeds through the open-air Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, killing 10 people and injuring 63. Within months, the first of 50 civil claims was filed over the tragedy.

A California Highway Patrol investigation concluded that Weller, not mechanical failure or road conditions, was the cause. Investigators found that Weller had probably become disoriented after accidentally pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake -- a not-uncommon driving mistake called “pedal error.”

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In January 2004, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley charged Weller with 10 counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

National transportation safety officials later said flimsy barriers outside the market contributed to the casualties.

They also faulted the city’s traffic plan for the street market, but a judge last summer ruled that victims could not sue the city of Santa Monica.

That ruling is under appeal.

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Last month, Weller, now 89, appeared before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson on the first day of trial, seated in a wheelchair. With the judge’s permission, he was not present for the next five weeks of testimony and the jury deliberations that culminated in across-the-board guilty verdicts Friday.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

VOICES

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‘He had many choices. We did not see that he took hold of those choices.... He drove 240 feet before he ran into the barricade for the farmers market. That’s a long way.’

Juror

Yolanda Hernandez

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‘It could have happened to anybody.... [But the evidence] convinced us that this was more than simple negligence.’

Juror

Thomas Walls

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‘He [was] not a reckless person, but the act was reckless.’

Juror

Cristina de la Rocha

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‘Mr. Weller was a good man, a good citizen. It’s so unfortunate.’

Juror

Simon Magtibay

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‘We have always believed the difficult issues raised by this case needed to be aired in public and decided by a jury. This helps conclude a case that involved

incredible human devastation and mayhem.’

Steve Cooley

Los Angeles district attorney

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‘This was not a man that ever did any harm to anybody. I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose. He just had an accident. There’s no way they should have

convicted him.’

Fran Peskoff

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Neighbor of Weller


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