A woman was sentenced Thursday to 51 years to life in state prison for a DUI crash that killed three Las Vegas teenagers in Huntington Beach in 2018 and seriously injured a fourth.
Bani Duarte, 29, of San Clemente was found guilty Oct. 1 of three counts of second-degree murder and one count of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury. The jury also found a sentencing enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury to be true.
“With your actions you’ve committed us to our own prison. We are imprisoned; we are in a hell you cannot think of,” Renee Mack, mother of Dylan Mack, one of the victims, told Duarte in a statement Thursday in Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Paer’s courtroom in Santa Ana.
The teens were in Huntington Beach for spring break when in the early hours of March 29, 2018, Duarte’s Hyundai Sonata struck a Toyota Corolla carrying them as it was stopped at a red light at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street. The Toyota was pushed into a pole and caught fire.
Dylan Mack, 18, Brooke Hawley, 17, and A.J. Rossi, also 17, were killed. A fourth occupant, Alexis Vargas, was severely injured.
On Thursday, Paer heard nearly four hours of victim impact statements from the teens’ friends and families and statements from and on behalf of the defendant before handing down the maximum sentence.
Duarte was sentenced to 45 years to life, with the opportunity for parole, for the three counts of murder. She also was sentenced to six years for DUI causing injury against Vargas. The sentences will be served consecutively.
“The victims’ families are suffering, the defendant’s family is suffering and there are no words to summarize this horrific event,” Paer said before the sentencing. “It’s obvious to the court this is a tragedy.”
Paer noted that Duarte had a prior DUI arrest in which she “was taken to jail, she was booked, her car was impounded and her license was suspended.”
“Hopefully this will send a message to this community that this behavior won’t be tolerated,” the judge said.
Duarte called the collision a “horrible accident that changed many, many lives forever.”
Looking toward the victims’ families, she said: “I am changed and I am remorseful and very regretful of the actions I made. … I wasn’t in the right state of mind mentally and emotionally. I didn’t think further into the consequences. I know no words I say will bring closure to this tragedy. I apologize for this selfish decision.”
During the trial, Deputy District Attorney Daniel Feldman argued that Duarte’s previous DUI arrest, along with statements in a jail phone call and comments on the social media app Instagram, proved that Duarte was aware of the consequences of drunk driving and therefore acted with malice.
At the time of the crash, Duarte had a blood-alcohol level of 0.3%, more than three times the legal limit, police said.
Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn, didn’t dispute that Duarte had been drinking, that she was driving, that the teens in the other car had been obeying all traffic laws and that three of them died as a result of the crash. Glenn positioned the defense based on the argument that Duarte wasn’t made to sign a Watson agreement, a statement when a person is convicted of DUI that affirms that driving under the influence can result in death. The statement can be used against the person if he or she is accused in a future DUI case.
The night of the crash, Duarte had gone out with friends. After drinking, she left Baja Sharkeez in Newport Beach, according to law enforcement reports.
Duarte told police after the crash that she had been headed south to San Clemente, when in fact she had traveled north on Pacific Coast Highway. When asked if she knew where she was, Duarte said Newport Beach, when in fact the collision occurred in Huntington Beach.
An onboard computer on Duarte’s car showed that the vehicle was traveling 79 mph when it hit the Corolla on a 45 mph stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.
Brooke’s older sister, Ashlee Hawley, had accompanied the teens to Huntington Beach during the spring trip. The night of the crash, Ashlee chose not to go out and to rest instead.
“Knowing that my sister was brutally murdered while I slept soundly will forever haunt me,” Ashlee said. “She was the brightness to my day. … Now I live with an emptiness and a darkness and half my soul gone.”
A video montage of Brooke showed her hopscotching across a school yard, getting her ear pierced, dancing, singing in a car and enjoying other moments with family and friends.
“You hear about all these stories of drunk drivers killing people, but you never imagine it will be your loved ones,” said Allie Rossi, A.J.’s older sister. “You killed them in the worst way possible; they burned to death.”
Duarte’s aunt Marcela Rodriguez said: “Bani was educated, although many don’t believe it, with Christian values. She was always a responsible child.”
Duarte’s cousin Josue Rodriguez said, “It pains me to see you like this, Bani, because I know this isn’t like you.”
“I don’t just think of my cousin,” Rodriguez added. “I think about A.J., Dylan, Brooke and Alexis. I’ve read every article, I’ve looked at every video and today I hear about all of your experiences.”