Closing arguments begin in Metrolink case

LOS ANGELES — Deputy Dist. Atty. John Monaghan told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday that Juan Manuel Alvarez never intended to commit suicide when he drove his SUV onto train tracks at Chevy Chase Drive, having instead perpetrated the 2005 Metrolink train derailment that killed 11 and injured more than 180 passengers as an attention-grabbing stunt.

Alvarez is charged with 11 counts of murder with special circumstances and one count each of arson and train wrecking for causing a Jan. 26, 2005, three-train crash when he drove his Jeep Cherokee onto the Metrolink tracks between Glendale and Los Angeles and doused his vehicle with gasoline.

He could face the death penalty if convicted.

When Alvarez testified on May 27, the Los Feliz resident told jurors he also soaked himself in gasoline hoping to burn himself alive after deciding to commit suicide earlier that morning. But prosecutors pointed to statements from emergency personnel and doctors, none of whom detected gasoline on Alvarez after the incident, leading Monaghan to speculate why Alvarez soaked his sport utility vehicle with gasoline.

“If you’re going to kill yourself by setting yourself on fire, why pour gas on the back section of the rear seat of the vehicle? It’s because you want to have an explosion,” Monaghan said. “You want to derail a train and make a statement. It has absolutely nothing to do with suicide. If you’re going to set yourself on fire, why waste gasoline putting it all over the vehicle? It’s inconsistent with someone trying to kill himself.”

Monaghan spent much of his 80-minute closing statement, which is scheduled to continue today, detailing the testimony of the prosecution’s first two witnesses, who he said contradicted much of what Alvarez said on the stand, and presented scores of gruesome photographs showing victims’ mangled and blood-soaked bodies.

Many of the victims’ family members in court Wednesday sobbed quietly during the presentation, some consoling each other when pictures of their deceased relative flashed on the overhead projector.

They declined to comment, as did Alvarez’s cousin and sister sitting feet from the grieving family members.

Alvarez sat calmly in court Wednesday, dressed in a beige shirt, khaki pants and tie. He showed little emotion, even as Monaghan charged that the 2005 incident — which Metrolink officials called the worst in its history — was no accident.

“Calling this an accident is a slap in the face of the people who lost their lives and were hurt,” Monaghan said. “This was an intentional act. He thought about killing everyone else but himself.”

Defense attorney Thomas Kielty, who, with attorney Michael Belter, is slated to begin his closing statement today, objected to Monaghan’s characterization of the incident as a “slap in the face.”

But the objection occurred after jurors left the room and after Monaghan repeatedly tried to show that Alvarez’s testimony and subsequent explanations of why and how the incident occurred — including driving on nearby Alger Street to find a place to commit suicide, drenching himself with gasoline and jumping from the SUV when he apparently changed his mind — were cooked up after learning he might spend the rest of his life in prison.

“He had to come up with the defense that . . . his was an abandoned suicide attempt,” Monaghan said. “He has a motive, a real motive. He does not want to be convicted of first-degree murder.”

Monaghan pointed to the testimony of witnesses during the trial’s early stages, including Edward Branch and Bruce Grey, who contradicted Alvarez’s testimony.

Branch, who was driving near the tracks on his way to work at the time of incident, testified that he “saw someone on the passenger side of the vehicle, but Alvarez said he was never on the passenger side,” Monaghan said.

Grey, an engineer driving Metrolink train No. 100, which struck the Jeep, told jurors on April 29 that he never saw Alvarez waving his hands in an attempt to grab the conductor’s attention, as Alvarez claims he did.

“Much of what they said was corroborated . . . and much of it contradicted what Mr. Alvarez had to say,” Monaghan said.

“This all could have been averted if Mr. Alvarez hadn’t done what he did that morning and he doesn’t want to accept responsibility for it.”

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