Out of control: The deadly toll of street racing in Los Angeles
Valentina D’Alessandro was at a party with a few girlfriends in 2013 when one of them got sick. They accepted another teenager’s offer to drive the girls home in his red Mustang.
In a commercial area of Wilmington, at the intersection of two four-lane boulevards, a car pulled up alongside the Mustang.
The race began.
Minutes later, Valentina, 16, was dead, her body wedged in a passenger side window following a crash. Police found her high school identification card at the scene.
She was one of at least 179 people who have died in Los Angeles County since 2000 in crashes where street racing was suspected, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of coroner’s records, police reports and media accounts from 2000 to 2017.
Southern California has long been an epicenter of high-speed car culture. Wild police pursuits dominate television newscasts. The “Fast & Furious” film franchise, which many cops blame for hyping street racing, was set in Los Angeles.
Police say incidents of street racing are on the rise, driven by popular culture and the use of social media to draw contestants and evade authorities. In what racers call “takeovers,” participants use their cars to block off streets or intersections to stage races.
In recent years, car clubs from neighboring areas, including Orange County and the Inland Empire, have begun traveling to Los Angeles to compete against local racing crews, increasing the number of dangerous drivers in the county, investigators say.
“We have the locations. We have lots of flat street. We have industrial parks. And the Hollywood connection,” said Chief Chris O’Quinn, who leads the California Highway Patrol’s Southern Division in L.A. County. “This is the place to be.”
The deadliest year on record was 2007, with 18 fatal crashes. After a period with relatively few recorded deaths, the count grew in recent years, with 15 fatalities in 2015, 11 in 2016 and 12 deaths in 2017, the Times analysis shows.
The dead were overwhelmingly male and young: More than half were 21 or younger, including two children, ages 4 and 8, killed along with their mother. Slightly less than half of the victims— 47% — were behind the wheel. The rest were either passengers in the speeding vehicles, spectators or people simply walking on a sidewalk or driving home.
Deaths have occurred across Los Angeles County, but some places — Long Beach, Santa Clarita, industrial zones Southeast of downtown and the wide boulevards that stretch across South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley — have been trouble spots.
One of the few law enforcement agencies tracking street racing incidents is the CHP, and it has only been doing so since 2016. From July 2016 to July 2017, the CHP has recorded nearly 700 racing incidents in L.A. County. Those races involved roughly 17,000 vehicles and 22,000 people, according to the CHP data. The data did not include fatalities.
The Times examined street racing deaths since 2000. Its tally of 179 killed is a conservative estimate, because few law enforcement agencies track street racing fatalities and the incidents themselves are difficult to classify.
Authorities say many of the races that lead to fatalities are, like the crash that killed Valentina, spontaneous.
Valentina’s mother, Lili Trujillo D’Alessandro, didn’t know what street racing was before her daughter’s 2013 crash.
When she dropped Valentina off at a friend’s house that day, she remembered, “she looked amazingly adorable. I can’t even explain the love I felt in that moment.” Her daughter was wearing combat boots and mismatched socks, her brown hair tucked under a beanie.
“Maybe something inside of me told me I was never going to see her again,” Trujillo D’Alessandro, 53, said.
According to coroner’s records, the two cars were surging down the road at an “unsafe speed” when the Mustang slammed into a third car.
The driver of the Mustang survived. He was 17.
Less than a month later, Trujillo D’Alessandro went to an anti-drug assembly at her daughter’s high school, carrying a poster of a smiling Valentina. Soon after, she formed the advocacy group “Street Racing Kills.”
“I want the kids to see reality and hit them with reality,” Trujillo D’Alessandro said. “I want them to see that this can happen.”
Eric Siguenza, 26, and Wilson Thomas Wong, 50, were killed in February 2015 in an area of Chatsworth known as the “Canoga Speedway” while watching a street race with more than 60 others.
Nine months later, three people, including a 15-year-old, were killed in the City of Commerce after a Dodge doing doughnuts in the street collided with a Ford, striking spectators. Sheriff’s deputies said more than 100 vehicles may have been in the area at the time.
Those deaths occurred during takeovers. The potential for danger, authorities said, is high, reinforced by drugs, large amounts of cash and other criminal activity.
“When you look at a takeover, you have a very large concentration of people, out of their vehicles, in a small area, and again you’ve got that 3,000-pound machine that is semi in control at best,” said Sgt. Jesse Garcia, one of the Los Angeles Police Department’s top street racing investigators. “You have the potential of a much higher number of victims should that vehicle lose control.”
Racers at takeover scenes have grown more aggressive toward police in recent years as well, according to O’Quinn, the CHP chief. Officers once were able to scatter racers with a flash of their cruisers’ lights. Now, some in the car scene fight back, either blocking a roadway to allow friends to escape or, at times, physically confronting officers.
A fire engine and ambulance responding to a medical emergency near downtown last year came across a takeover and were “surrounded by a large group in the hundreds, possibly more,” said Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. The crew put out a distress call after some racers leaped into the emergency vehicle, Sanders said.
No one was injured, but another ambulance needed to be dispatched to help the subject of the original emergency call, who was struggling to breathe.
“That activity placed somebody’s life in danger,” said Capt. Al Lopez, of the LAPD’s Central Traffic bureau, whose investigators are searching for suspects in that incident.
The takeover scene, police say, has grown stronger in recent years, bolstered by a young population hungry for attention on social media. Events can be organized within hours, and locations can be changed on the fly.
Instagram “likes” on viral videos of stunts — people performing doughnuts or bouncing lowriders — are the new street cred, Garcia said. As much as $20,000 is bet on some illegal drag races.
Tracking the number of street races is difficult. Street racing is not listed as a possible cause on state forms that record traffic collisions, so many agencies don’t keep detailed records. Others don’t agree on how to define a street race or speed contest. The penal code’s definition is broad and includes races against a “clock or timing device.”
The image of two cars rocketing down a stretch of asphalt is commonly associated with street racing, but some agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, also include single-car crashes that involve racing against the clock.
Following a 2016 crash in Commerce, the LAPD and CHP formed a task force to tackle the problem of illicit racing. In the past three years, seven people have died in the city of about 13,000 traversed by the 5 and 710 freeways.
Three of those deaths occurred in the fiery 2016 collision. A suspected street racer doing 100 mph lost control of his Dodge Charger on the 5 Freeway and slammed into a UPS truck, which went airborne, landed on the center divider and collided with two other vehicles before exploding. Two passengers in one of the cars — Brian Lewandowski, 18, and Michelle Littlefield, 19 — were killed, along with the driver of the UPS truck, Scott Treadway, 52. Four others were injured.
“My every day, my every move with my wife, was about my daughter,” said Willy Littlefield, Michelle’s father. “When we wake up, we have to remind ourselves that our daughter is not here, that this is the new reality.”
Dealio Lockhart, 37, was charged with three counts of murder in connection with the incident. He is still awaiting trial. A second driver remains at large.
A few law enforcement agencies have assigned officers to the task force. But some agencies say they lack manpower. The CHP has assigned two-full-time detectives, O’Quinn said.
At least a dozen officers in the LAPD’s Central Bureau investigate street racing, focusing on organized meet-ups since spontaneous racing is nearly impossible to deter. Efforts to place a similar unit in the Valley, another racing hot zone, were abandoned for lack of staff, a street racing investigator said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, whose district includes a stretch of the San Fernando Valley that is infamous for racing, is an outspoken critic of the scene’s culture and the department’s response. Three years ago, the city council approved an ordinance he authored that requires the LAPD to incorporate a wide array of data regarding street racing into the department’s crime tracking system. After a fiery racing-related crash claimed the lives of four young people in Northridge last October, LAPD officials admitted during a public hearing that they still weren’t doing so.
“You can’t solve a problem that you don’t measure,” Englander said.
Late last year, the LAPD began tracking fatalities, injuries, crashes and the number of citations related to races, according to Josh Rubenstein, a department spokesman. The information was added to the department’s crime tracking system in January, he said.
The Times’ analysis found that at least 60 people died in crashes related to street racing in the city of Los Angeles between 2000 and 2017. Only two other cities in the county — Long Beach and Commerce — saw more than 10 deaths during that period.
Neither the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department nor the Long Beach Police Department, two of the largest agencies in the region, have officers assigned to the county task force.
County deputies are being trained to recognize vehicles that have been modified for racing, but, Det. Christine Ostrander said, “our deputies are just overworked, understaffed.”
When Benny Golbin, 36, didn’t show up to play saxophone for a Steely Dan cover band in Seal Beach on a Friday night in January 2016, his family knew something was wrong.
Hours later, they got the news: Golbin, a musician and teacher, was dead. That afternoon, as he was heading between jobs, a silver Chevrolet Cobalt flew over a median on Crenshaw Boulevard in Hawthorne and landed on his Honda CR-V. He was killed instantly.
Police said at the time that the Cobalt was racing a red Camaro. The driver of the Cobalt wasn’t seriously injured. The driver of the Camaro fled and was later arrested.
For Golbin’s family, the loss is only made worse by the outcome of the criminal prosecution in his death. The drivers of the Cobalt, Alfredo Perez Davila, and the Camaro, Anthony Leon Holley, were initially charged with murder but ultimately accepted plea deals. Davila pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison. Holley pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run and was sentenced to three years’ probation after an emotional and contentious court hearing last July. The prosecutor declined to comment.
Benny Golbin’s wife pleaded with the judge for a stiffer sentence, saying that she would not call the incident a “car accident.”
“It is a murder,” said Anchesa Bunyasai.
When Golbin’s mother, Sheri Kessel, hears a saxophone playing on the radio, she turns it off.
“This isn’t just going out and driving fast and having fun with your friends,” she said. “People get killed. This is life and death.”
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.