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Trial begins for fatal racing crash in Irvine

The Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.
The Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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A transgender woman with an extensive record of speeding tickets was racing with a man in Irvine, triggering a fatal crash that killed a woman driving home from work, a prosecutor told jurors today at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana as the defendant’s attorney said his client did not cause the collision.

Toni Love Valenzuela, 33, is charged with second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and hit and run with permanent and serious injury. She is accused of killing 43-year-old Carmella Vann, a former Miss Tustin, in a July 3, 2018, crash.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Janine Madera characterized it as “road rage” or a “contest of egos.”

Co-defendant Patrick Le, who pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter in March 2021, is expected to testify in the trial. Le was sentenced to four years in prison, but was given credit for 1,000 days in custody at the time.

Valenzuela was behind the wheel of a Hyundai Veloster and Le was driving an Acura RL. Shuttle bus driver Sigifriedo DeHaro noticed that the two drivers were revving their engines at a red light at Red Hill and Main Street, Madera said. Video from the bus was shown to the jurors, showing the two cars speeding away from the bus.

Moments later, surveillance video from a building picks the two racing cars up again, Madera said. Another driver, Kevin DeHaas, told investigators he was about to switch lanes when he noticed one of the cars gaining on him, so he jerked the wheel back, Madera said. Le crossed over into oncoming traffic and Valenzuela attempted to “squeeze” between the two cars, Madera said. Valenzuela was going about 60 to 63.5 mph in a 50 mph zone, Madera said.

Another building surveillance video shows the crash, Madera said. Vann slammed on the brakes so hard the rear of her car left the road, Madera said. Le’s car slammed into the victim’s car and Valenzuela kept going, Madera said.

The crash was so loud people started to emerge from the building to see what happened, Madera said. “Ms. Vann was an experienced driver, driving home from work and did
nothing wrong,” Madera said.

Le was rushed to a nearby hospital and Vann was pronounced dead at the scene.

DeHaas took a picture of Valenzuela’s car so police were later able to track the suspect down through the license plate, Madera said. When questioned by police, “She lies and says she didn’t know there was any crash at all,” she said.

Valenzuela claimed she was “absorbed” in a phone call at the time, Madera said, but phone records show she made a 17-minute call moments after the collision.

Valenzuela has received 11 citations, including reckless driving in September 2014 for going 90 to 100 mph and nine speeding tickets, Madera said. The defendant took three traffic school classes to resolve tickets, so she knew the dangers of speeding, the attorney added.

Valenzuela’s attorney, June Woo Chung of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said he will call Le as a witness. “I expect his side of the story will be the one he had all along — that he was somehow pushed over” into oncoming traffic, Chung said.

Le ultimately acknowledged “it was all ego, it was my lane,” Chung said. “He’s fixated on beating Toni Valenzuela because he was pissed off she cut him off,” Chung said.

The two had never met before the collision, Chung said.

Chung acknowledged that his client was dishonest with police during questioning and has a lengthy record of traffic violations. “Nine speeding tickets, I admit that’s a lot,” Chung said. “And there is evidence she lied. This is true. I’m not going to say you’re going to like or love Toni Valenzuela ... But I am asking that you keep an open heart. You’re not here to punish her for her driving record or to punish her for her lies. At the end of this case I’m confident you will find her not guilty of murder or vehicular manslaughter.”

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