A woman charged with murder and driving under the influence in a March 29 crash that killed three Las Vegas teenagers in Huntington Beach had been arrested two years earlier on suspicion of DUI, but because of a processing error the case never got to prosecutors, authorities say.
Bani Duarte, 27, was arrested in San Clemente on June 22, 2016, on suspicion of misdemeanor driving under the influence. A deputy alleged he found her behind the wheel of an SUV illegally parked across multiple spaces at a Circle K convenience store, according to an Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigation report.
However, the Sheriff’s Department inadvertently did not send its report detailing the incident to the Orange County district attorney’s office for possible charges, department spokesman Ray Grangoff said Wednesday.
Typically, the district attorney’s office reviews police investigation reports to determine whether and what type of charges should be filed in a case.
A misdemeanor DUI conviction can result in a maximum sentence of six months in jail, along with fines, according to prosecutors.
The deputy who arrested Duarte alleged in his report, released Tuesday, that she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.17% and showed signs of intoxication during a field sobriety test.
He also reported that an empty beer bottle and a glass water bottle that had been filled with vodka were found in the car. Duarte told the deputy that the alcohol belonged to her passenger, according to the report.
She was booked at the Sheriff’s Department jail, received a citation and was released, Grangoff said.
Grangoff said the agency discovered the processing misstep early last month and launched an internal audit to determine how the case was forgotten. The review of documents from 2016 to this year found no other cases that were missed, he said.
“One of the results of the audit is now we’re immediately sending reports over to the court system,” Grangoff said. “The importance of sending that over immediately has been emphasized with staff.”
Duarte’s driver’s license, which was suspended after her 2016 arrest, was reinstated in June 2017, according to the Sheriff’s Department report.
Duarte, a San Clemente resident, faces three counts of murder and one count of driving under the influence causing injury, as well as a possible sentencing enhancement on allegations of inflicting great bodily injury, in connection with the March 29 crash in Huntington Beach. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to Orange County Superior Court records.
If convicted, she could be sentenced to 51 years to life in state prison, according to prosecutors.
Duarte’s defense attorney, Debra White, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Huntington Beach police allege in a document attached to an arrest warrant that Duarte’s blood-alcohol level an hour after the crash was 0.28% — more than three times the legal limit.
Officers found a “partially empty” 1-ounce bottle of vodka in Duarte’s purse, authorities wrote, and her Hyundai Sonata contained an empty 24-ounce can of a malt beverage that its manufacturer says has 8% alcohol content.
Duarte, a single mother of four children, told officers she had gone out for sushi with a friend and then stopped at the Stag Bar + Kitchen and Baja Sharkeez on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, where she had a total of two vodka sodas and one gelatin shot, according to law enforcement reports.
“After leaving Sharkeez, Duarte believed … she was driving southbound on Pacific Coast Highway toward her home in San Clemente,” Huntington Beach police Investigator Josh Page wrote. “Duarte did not have any recollection of striking any curbs, stopping on PCH, being talked to by witnesses or colliding with the victims in this incident.”
A witness who was driving with friends near the Hyundai in Newport Beach told authorities that he watched the car swerve and strike a curb after making a left turn onto West Coast Highway, Page wrote.
The witness, who was not identified, said the Hyundai driver parked just past Prospect Street and got out. The men offered her a ride because they “believed she was impaired,” but she turned them down, got back in her car and drove toward Huntington Beach, Page wrote.
The men called police and followed the Hyundai until it crashed into a Toyota shortly after 1 a.m. at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street. The Hyundai was traveling at 79 mph when it slammed into the back of the Toyota, which was stopped at a red light, Page wrote.
The impact pushed the Toyota through the intersection and into a pole, and it burst into flames. Three teenagers inside were killed. They were identified as Brooke Hawley, 17, Dylan Mack, 18, and A.J. Rossi, 17, all of whom were visiting Southern California from Las Vegas for spring break.
Alexis Vargas, a fourth teenager in the Toyota, survived the crash and was taken to a hospital for treatment, authorities said.
Duarte, who is listed in jail records as a receptionist, was initially arrested after the crash on suspicion of driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter and posted $100,000 bail three days later.
Investigators said they arrested Duarte again April 29 in Downey on a warrant after they received information that she may have intended to flee the country to avoid prosecution. It isn’t clear what information led to that conclusion.
She is being held in Orange County Jail in Santa Ana with bail set at $4 million.