Tape Shows Weller After Market Crash

Times Staff Writers

More than an hour after he drove through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, leaving 10 people dead, George Russell Weller sat in a stark room at the police station shrouded in misery and frustration.

"In that course of that one block, I knocked over those stands and hit those people," Weller, then 86, said the day of the 2003 tragedy. "When I finally came to a rest, [I said,] my God, what have I done?"

Weller's videotaped interview with police was released to the media Monday by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, but was seen last week by jurors in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson.

Weller, 89, is charged with 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter and faces 18 years in prison if convicted. The facts are not in dispute, so jurors must decide whether the July 16, 2003, incident was an accident or a crime that could effectively put Weller in jail for the rest of his life.

Prosecutors say he drove his 1992 Buick more than 800 feet through the market, on Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 4th streets, disregarding the people he hit. The defense contends that Weller suffered a catastrophic instance of "pedal error," mistaking the gas pedal for the brake. National safety experts have cited thousands of such instances.

For both sides, the tape presents important evidence of how Weller behaved shortly after the crash in Santa Monica, where he has lived for 52 years.

On the tape, Weller sits scrunched into a corner, frequently playing with his cane and sometimes appearing disoriented. His arm often rests on a table that seems to fill the tiny interrogation room. The camera presents the interview from a distant angle.

Weller is remorseful as he calmly answers investigators' questions. He repeatedly says that he did not know what happened.

"And right to this moment, I can't tell you from the moment that car accelerated," he said.

"To the best of my knowledge, I tried everything that you do to an automobile and tried to put on the foot brake. I tried to take my foot off of the gas; I tried to take the control knob and jam it into park. Everything, anything that I thought would stop the action of the car, I tried in that block, unsuccessfully," he said.

"Was your foot on the accelerator, sir?" asked Eddie Chavez, identified on the transcript as a California Highway Patrol investigator.

"I don't know. And I don't ... I'm not being capricious in my answer on that. The car was going. And if my foot was on the accelerator, it would have never ... I never, never drive at the speed that that thing accelerated to," Weller said.

The fate of those he hit was also on Weller's mind.

"And I went through that place, and God help the poor people that were in there. And do you have any feedback from what happened there?"

Later, Weller appears even more saddened:

"But, God almighty, those poor people. Poor, poor, tragic people. I had, I have the feeling that they were just down there for the value of the thing in the first place because the prices were good. And what a tragic ending to their outing, and I contributed to it, which is just almost more than I can figure out."

Last week, the jurors heard Weller describe the last time he renewed his California driving license. He told police that he took a written test but wasn't required to show that he could drive safely.

"I lucked out," Weller said on the tape.

"I passed the written test, high enough to where they didn't ask me to take a drive, particularly at my age," Weller said.

The trial is expected to take several more weeks.

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john.spano@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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