Charges of vehicular manslaughter may be sought against Steve Garcia, 17, whose car went out of control in El Sereno and plowed into a crowd of his former schoolmates, killing one girl and injuring 13 other youngsters, Los Angeles police said Wednesday.
The police announcement came during a day of mourning at Wilson High School, where taps sounded and flags were lowered to half-staff for 17-year-old Rhonda Chavez, who died of her injuries, and for the others who were hurt.
"The students are taking it very, very hard," Principal Joseph Roa said Wednesday morning. "This is a very tight community. These kids all grew up together. This thing has cast a pall over everyone."
The Los Angeles Unified School District sent a psychological crisis team to the school Wednesday morning for what program coordinator Howard Eichinger described as group counseling sessions designed to ease the emotional impact of the tragedy. About 200 students attended the hourlong sessions, during which they met in groups of up to a dozen to discuss with psychologists their individual reactions to the incident.
"It's a working-through process," Eichinger explained. "Their minds are flooded with images and thoughts after something like this--sort of a shock reaction.
"We encourage them to talk about their feelings and emotions. That helps to defuse the situation."
Martha Zavala, a 17-year-old senior who attended one of the sessions, said her first reaction to the accident was "feeling very bad--and realizing that no one is really safe. . . . I couldn't believe that anything like that could happen to someone here."
Martha said that after talking over what had happened with the half-dozen others at her session, she "felt a lot better. . . .
"It really helped," she said. "I think it really was a good idea."
But tears were still visible in some eyes Wednesday morning as students and faculty gathered outside Roa's office to read the terse announcement he had written on a chalk board:
"It saddens me to report that Ronda (sic) Chavez, home room 357, passed away Tuesday evening."
Was a Sophomore
Rhonda's counselor at Wilson, Connie Richard, said the girl was assigned to the high school last April, after completing her studies at a nearby junior high school. She was a sophomore this year.
"She was very outgoing, very well liked," Richard said. "She was a very pleasant person, and had a lot of friends. . . . Most of those friends are still in shock. It still doesn't seem quite real to them."
Sgt. Richard Litsinger of the Central Traffic Division said it is likely that vehicular manslaughter charges will be sought against Garcia. Charges of reckless driving and driving without a license also likely will be sought, he said.
But Anthony Bartolotto, detective superintendent of the Police Department's Central Traffic Bureau, said it will be several days before any actual decision is made.
"We have to re-interview some people to see what happened," he said. "We have to go over the entire thing, to see what we have."
Police spokesman Lt. Dan Cooke said no action can be taken until a report on the accident is completed and results of the Chavez girl's autopsy are available. All that, he said, could take from two weeks to a month.
At that time, Cooke said, the case will be presented to the Juvenile Probation Department, which will review the evidence before deciding whether to turn it over to the district attorney's office for prosecution.
Police said that because of conflicting reports they are not yet certain exactly what happened Tuesday afternoon after Garcia, a Wilson High School dropout, stopped off at the high school to pick up a former schoolmate, Chris Dena, 15.
Bartolotto said that after Dena climbed into the car, Garcia apparently headed southeast down the narrow, curving slope of Druid Avenue, east of the school.
It was about 3:10 p.m. The pavement was wet from a recent thundershower. The narrow sidewalk on the west side of the street was filled with students walking home from school. Some witnesses said Garcia was speeding; some said he was not.
Versions at Odds
"Garcia says that all of a sudden, five or six girls ran across the road," Bartolotto said. "He says he swerved and downshifted to avoid them. But independent witnesses say there weren't any people in the street."
In any event, Bartolotto said, Garcia lost control of the car and it went into a spin, glancing off a tree beside the road and plowing into the students crowding the sidewalk.
"It happened so fast," Dena said later. "I didn't even know we'd hit people until I heard the screams."
"There were six or seven kids scattered all over the grass," said Charles Aguilar, 60, in front of whose house the car came to a rest. "They were girls screaming, crying."
One of Rhonda Chavez's white, high-heeled shoes was flung 40 feet through a front window of Aguilar's home. The other was pinned beneath the right front wheel of the car.