I wanted to hate Jose Luis Huerta Mundo, the self-employed landscaper accused of making an illegal turn on a blind corner of a steep Newport Beach hill that led to the death of cyclist Michael Nine.
So I went to the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach on Monday to catch the trial of Mundo, who faces a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge.
And what’s not to hate?
Though the information will be kept from the 12-person jury, Mundo has had five previous driving-related convictions — four because he had no driver’s license and another for not registering his vehicle.
The jurors also won’t learn that Mundo, 38, of Anaheim, had been deported before, only to end up back illegally in the United States. He’s now facing another deportation (and being held without bail because of his immigration status).
In other words, the jurors will receive no background information that Mundo has shown repeated contempt for the law.
Legally, he should not have been behind the wheel that hot summer morning on July 15. And that’s reason alone to despise Mundo.
More fuel for hate is the prosecution’s contention that Mundo — when turning left from Harbor Ridge Drive onto the southbound (uphill) lane of Spyglass Hill Road — had to ignore two prominent traffic signs that prohibited the maneuver.
Two cycling buddies of Nine testified Monday that Mundo’s white Chevrolet stake-bed landscaping truck had pulled out into the downhill lane of Spyglass and stopped as the bikers rounded the curve at more than 30 mph.
Cyclists in front who managed to pass the vehicle shouted a warning to the rest of the pack: “Truck! Truck!”
But, according to the testimony, as the cyclists braked and swerved, the truck unexpectedly lurched forward toward the center of the two-lane street. Two riders were able to change course and steer clear of the rear of the truck, forcing one of them to go up on the sidewalk to avoid a wreck.
But for Nine — the cyclist nearest the center of the road — it was too late. With the truck suddenly in front of him, he slammed on his brakes, locked up his tires, and slammed body-first into the truck near its rear left wheel. A Newport Beach officer said he found hairs embedded the left back tire.
Nine died at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian shortly afterward. His injuries included two skull fractures, 18 broken ribs and a torn aorta.
The Santa Ana resident was married, a father of two young children, and all of 43.
Mundo’s version of the events — which emerged in court testimony from an interview with him at the accident scene — is another reason for rage because it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
He told officers that he simply had been driving up Spyglass to a landscaping job when he saw cyclists rounding the blind curve. The riders were in the wrong lane, coming straight at him. To try and avoid a collision, Mundo said he turned his truck to the right.
What’s wrong with that picture? For starters, Nine’s fellow riders and an investigation by Newport Beach police officers contradicted the story.
Second, by all accounts, Nine was a hell of a cyclist who would meet his friends three mornings each week at Kéan Coffee in Tustin for challenging rides around Orange County. He had made the descent down Spyglass perhaps hundreds of times. Going too wide on a blind, downhill corner at nearly 40 mph just wasn’t something veteran riders like him did.
If the prosecution’s story turns out to be true — and the decision should be in the jury’s hands before the week’s end — Mundo compounded the offense of driving without a license with blowing off two traffic signs to make an illegal left turn that resulted in the death of an innocent family man.
Yeah, Mundo should be an easy guy to hate. But in the courtroom, I watched the immigrant gardener in his ill-fitting gray suit, listening to a Spanish translation of the proceedings. I didn’t feel much toward him except disgust.
A half-dozen of his family members and friends sat together in court. One woman, her eyes reddened, clutched a cross and picture of the Virgin Mary — the Our Lady of Guadalupe version — that hung from a rosary around her neck. They’ve been without Mundo’s physical presence and financial support since mid-July, and chances are this arrangement will continue for a while.
If convicted on the misdemeanor, Mundo could receive a year in county jail, though he could get off with time served. Then Mundo faces deportation. All in all, considering the history of his behavior, it’s a small wrist slap. He’ll live.
And somewhere in Santa Ana are a widow and her two young kids, trying to make a new life without their father just because someone without a license decided it was OK to drive his truck and, allegedly, make an illegal turn.
There’s no chance for a satisfying ending here. In most significant ways, this story has already been played out.
Maybe that’s why it’s past the time to hate.
WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.