Dropping to a knee, Luis Hernandez lit a small white candle and placed it beside a bed of flowers near the intersection where his little brothers’ lives ended the night before.
“I got the call and I didn’t believe it,” he said, wiping away tears Friday morning. “I just didn’t believe it.”
Hernandez’s younger siblings, 7-year-old Jose Luis and 9-year-old Marcos, were walking home from school with their mother Thursday night when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sport-utility vehicle careened onto the sidewalk, slamming into all three.
Jose Luis was pronounced dead at the scene, relatives said. Marcos died at a hospital a short time later.
The gruesome crash, which injured a total of seven people in Boyle Heights about 7:30 p.m., left the community in a mix of shock and anger, as some questioned if the deputies acted recklessly before their cruiser and another car were involved in a crash Thursday night.
Hector Lopez was walking out of a store near Indiana Street and Whittier Boulevard when he heard a vehicle speed up. Within seconds he heard the sound of cars colliding and saw something fly through the air, possibly a bumper from one of the vehicles. Lopez said he did not hear any police sirens before the wreck.
“You’re supposed to turn on your lights, sirens and check before taking off,” Lopez said, adding that the family deserved “justice.”
The deputies were responding to a shots fired call at Downey Road and Triggs Street, a little over a mile away from the crash scene, said Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department. They received the call at 7:17 p.m. and were aware that one male victim had been wounded before they began traveling toward the shooting scene, she said.
Nishida did not know the status of the shooting victim on Friday afternoon, and declined to identify the deputies involved in the crash.
Three law enforcement sources told The Times that the vehicle was being driven by a trainee deputy who was riding with her field training officer. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
The Sheriff’s Department SUV collided with another vehicle, and the force of that crash caused the SUV to veer onto the sidewalk, where it struck the mother and her children, said Officer Drake Madison, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman.
Madison said it was not clear how the initial crash occurred, how fast the sheriff’s vehicle was traveling or if the vehicle’s sirens were blaring.
The car involved in the initial crash with the Sheriff’s Department SUV then hit a third car, “causing injury to two additional adult pedestrians in the crosswalk,” Madison said.
Among the seven injured were three pedestrians, two deputies and at least one occupant of one of the other cars, Madison said.
The boys’ mother remained in serious condition Friday afternoon, an LAPD spokesman said.
Ed Winter, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, would not confirm the identities of the boys killed in the crash. The LAPD has put a “security hold” on the case, he said.
A security video obtained by The Times from the nearby Green Mill Liquor Store shows the sheriff’s SUV driving on the sidewalk after it had struck at least two pedestrians.
In the eight-second video clip, the vehicle enters the frame with its emergency lights on. A trash can and at least one person are seen bouncing off the front of the car. The person can then be seen rolling onto the sidewalk.
Because the video had no audio, it was unclear if the cruiser’s siren was on.
Julie Valle, 34, was standing in the front parking lot of Stevenson Middle School with her two children, her dog and a relative when she saw a sheriff’s patrol vehicle speeding south on Indiana Street, no sirens and no light.
Valle said she watched as the vehicle approached the intersection of Indiana street and Whittier boulevard.
“The light was red on their end,” she said. “They did a California roll and turned on the lights at the intersection and then hit a car.”
The crashed caused a chain reaction, she said. The car heading east on Whittier Boulevard hit a person and a van that was on the northbound Lanes of Indiana Street. Valle said the cruiser, lost control and went onto the sidewalk, hitting the wall of the Wells Fargo bank.
She said she ran down from the school to the intersection, where she helped an injured woman.
“She was trying to get up,” Valle said. “I told her don’t move, you were just involved in a car accident.”
Then Valle said she took in the carnage.
“All I see is little legs,” she said. “Then I see a boy, and that’s when I start to get the full picture.”
The mangled body of one boy lay near another. Their mother, she learned, was bleeding from the head.
A male and female deputy huddled near a parking lot. She said she was later told by a detective that the boys’ mother was pregnant.
The crash is being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Multi-Discipline Collision Investigation Team.
In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department expressed its “deepest condolences to the families and all those affected by this tragic accident.”
“The LASD and its personnel are heavily impacted any time an incident involving our response to an emergency, or efforts to help others in need, results in injury or the loss of life,” the statement read.
Araceli Cortez, a relative, said the mother of the two children didn't learn about her sons’ deaths until early Thursday.
"They were beautiful, respectful and smart," Cortez said, struggling not to cry.
Cortez said she her son, Luis, drove to the hospital after learning the youngest boy had died at the scene. Marcos was in surgery but died a short time after they arrived.
“We all started screaming from the pain,” she said.
The collision occurred less than a week after an 11-year-old girl was struck and killed on a sidewalk about a mile from the scene of Thursday night’s crash in Boyle Heights.
The driver in that incident, Jose Louis Perez, was booked on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter, according to the LAPD. Perez was heading west on Whittier Boulevard near Marietta Street when he crossed into eastbound lanes and crashed into two parked cars, police said.
The impact thrust one of the cars onto the sidewalk, where it struck four pedestrians next to a taco stand. Elektra Yepez died of her injuries. The other victims were expected to survive.
Earlier this year, the county paid $4 million to settle a wrongful-death suit over a 2013 crash in which a sheriff’s deputy failed to turn on his lights and sirens while answering a call in Palmdale.
The deputy, Kamal Jannah, was not responding to an emergency but was racing at speeds up to 83 mph when he barreled through an intersection and struck a vehicle in which Sara Paynter and Robert Delgadillo, a recently engaged couple, were riding. Both were ejected and died at the scene.
Jannah was not criminally charged, but he is no longer employed by the Sheriff’s Department.
Hernandez, who said the boys will be memorialized during a Saturday afternoon vigil, struggled to put his grief into words as he stood at the scene.