Man charged with murder in hit-and-run crash that killed LAPD officer

Man charged with murder in hit-and-run crash that killed LAPD officer
The wreck left the police car's radio unusable, forcing the other officer to use his personal cellphone to seek help. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

A 20-year-old man was charged Wednesday with murder, vehicular manslaughter and other counts in connection with Saturday's hit-and-run crash that killed a Los Angeles police officer and injured another, prosecutors said.

Maynor Enrique Varela, of Harbor City, was charged with one felony count each of murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and leaving the scene of an accident, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said. He faces two additional felony counts of assault on a peace officer, and a special circumstance of second-degree murder of a peace officer.


Varela, who is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon, is currently being held without bail. If convicted, prosecutors said, he faces up to life without parole in state prison.

Varela was arrested Tuesday after detectives determined he was driving the Chevrolet Tahoe that broadsided a LAPD patrol car driven by Officer Roberto Sanchez. Varela was initially detained by police about a mile away from the scene of the crash after he was seen fleeing, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. 
The collision occurred shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday as Sanchez, 32, and his partner were pursuing another car -- a Chevy Camaro -- on Anaheim Street in the city’s Rolling Hills neighborhood near San Pedro, according to police accounts of the incident.
When the driver of the Camaro pulled a sudden U-turn, Sanchez attempted to do the same and was hit by Varela, police allege. The impact was violent enough to crush the driver’s side of the police car. Rescuers had to cut the car open to free Sanchez, a six-year veteran of the LAPD, who was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.  His partner suffered a broken jaw.

Detectives from the department's elite Robbery Homicide Division were assigned to the case and by Tuesday had established that Varela and the driver of the Camaro know each other, said multiple LAPD officials with knowledge of the investigation, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

In a felony complaint outlining the murder charge, prosecutors allege Varela "knew or should have known" Sanchez was a police officer "engaged in the performance of duties.” The complaint was worded in a way to give prosecutors some leeway as they try to prove Varela is guilty of murder.

Varela, the complaint states, either intended to inflict great bodily injury with the crash or simply used a dangerous and deadly weapon -- his SUV -- in the commission of the crime.

Police believe Varela was intentionally following the police cruiser as Sanchez and his partner tracked the Camaro, one official said. The official, however, stopped short of saying Varela is suspected of deliberately ramming the cruiser.  Another official said there is no evidence suggesting Varela and the driver of the Camaro coordinated the crash.

The officials would not specify how the two men are connected or provide details about what occurred in the moments before Sanchez began to trail the Camaro.  Police also have not said whether Sanchez and his partner had activated the emergency lights and siren on the patrol car, nor how fast they were traveling while behind the Camero.

The officials stressed the investigation was far from complete as detectives were still working to fully understand the events leading up to the fatal crash.

Despite claims by police they had not arrested anyone in the case, jail records show Varela was arrested on Saturday afternoon and held for an unspecified crime. He was then rearrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder, records show.

Initial claims that Varela may have been intoxicated at the time of the collision were not accurate, officials said. Varela's brother, who was reportedly riding in the car with him at the time of the crash, is also being held, police officials said. It was not clear whether police will arrest him in connection with the deadly crash.

Varela, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles, has a valid driver's license with no reportable accidents, citations, or suspensions.

Sanchez was the third LAPD officer killed in vehicle crashes this year. In March, Officer Nicholas Lee was killed when an out-of-control truck crushed the patrol car he was driving. And last month, motorcycle Officer Chris Cortijo died from injuries he suffered when he was waiting at a red light and was hit from behind by a woman suspected of being under the influence of drugs.