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California and the West

2 Sisters Killed by Car Fleeing Police

Crime: Youth in suspects' auto also dies. Cypress officials say pursuit appears to be within regulations.

December 25, 1996|SHELBY GRAD and GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ANAHEIM — Two sisters, one of them three months pregnant, were killed early Tuesday in Orange County when a stolen car being pursued by Cypress police ran a red light and slammed into their vehicle broadside.

Authorities identified the victims as Lizett Quinonez, a 22-year-old Anaheim nurse's aide, and Claudia Quinonez, a 16-year-old resident of Guadalajara, who was visiting her sister.

The force of the crash sent both cars careening 150 feet from the intersection of Orange and Knott avenues in Anaheim, flattening the sisters' car.

"The other vehicle hit them going 80 mph, so the impact was great," Anaheim Police Lt. John Haradon said. "The victims had to be cut out of the car."

Police arrested the three occupants of the other car, one of whom died Tuesday afternoon at UC Irvine Medical Center. The driver, 18-year-old Oscar Rodriguez of Buena Park, faces vehicular manslaughter charges.

Family members and friends gathered at the sisters' small Anaheim apartment to grieve their loss.

"They didn't deserve to die," said Lizett Quinonez's fiance, Mario Zavala, 26. "I am in shock. I just can't believe it. I was just with her last night. . . . I am thinking of the good times we had. She was so sweet and lovable. She always had a smile on her face."

Relatives said the sisters were returning from a fast-food restaurant when their car was struck. Their parents, who live in Guadalajara, were devastated when they heard the news, said cousin Marco Gonzalez of Oxnard.

"They are in really bad shape, especially being so far away from home and this being Christmas," Gonzalez said.

Relatives and friends were not the only ones touched by the tragedy. As word of the Christmas Eve accident spread, a steady procession of visitors left flowers, candles and personal notes at the crash site.

"I have a 15-year-old daughter, and she wants to drive. I don't want her to drive after this," said Yvonne Furrow, a 47-year-old Anaheim resident who visited the makeshift memorial. "It's not going to be a very merry Christmas. I'll tell you that."

Though high-speed police pursuits have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, Anaheim officers said their early investigation uncovered no evidence that the Tuesday morning chase was mishandled.

"I don't see any problems with the pursuit," said Haradon, noting that the chase lasted less than a minute and covered only three-quarters of a mile. "In my opinion, the officer did a very good job in that limited time and under the circumstances."

Cypress police launched an examination of the pursuit to determine whether the officer complied with the department's policies and procedures. Cypress Police Sgt. Ed Bish said such investigations are routine.

The incident unfolded about 2:15 a.m. when the officer saw a white car "driving erratically" on Orange Avenue. Police said the car had been stolen hours earlier.

The officer, whose name was not released, activated his lights and directed the driver to stop. The driver hesitated at first but yielded near Orange and Valley View Street, Haradon said.

When the officer stepped out of his patrol car and approached the car, the driver sped off. The officer returned to his vehicle and began the pursuit, he said.

A few seconds into the chase, one of the passengers tossed a loaded handgun out of the car near Orange and Holder, Haradon said.

The car ran a red light and barreled into the Knott intersection at 2:20 a.m., colliding with the vehicle carrying the Quinonez sisters.

"The suspect's car slammed right into the [sisters'] driver-side door," Haradon said. "The cars were totaled."

Both women died instantly, he said.

The suspects' car also sustained massive damage. Rodriguez and an unidentified teen-age girl were able to climb out of the vehicle, where police arrested them, according to witnesses. They were taken to UC Irvine Medical Center.

The third occupant, 14-year-old Abraham Camarena of Cerritos, was lifted from the car on a stretcher, witnesses said. He later died at UC Irvine Medical Center.

Police said Tuesday night that they were still trying to determine whether the suspects were under the influence of alcohol or drugs and what connection the loaded handgun has to the case.

"We are looking into any criminal activities they may have been involved in," Haradon said. "We don't know what they did. But the handgun makes us suspicion, so we are looking into it."

Because the chase lasted less than a minute, Haradon said, there was no time for backup units or a police helicopter to aid in the pursuit. If the chase had lasted longer, a helicopter could have followed the suspect's car from the air and allowed police on the ground to fall back, he said.

At the sisters' home, the shock of the crash gave way to grief as friends comforted each other in the living room and family member sobbed in the bedroom.

Zavala said of his fiancee, "I love her. It hurts a lot. She was going to have our kid. We were planning to be married. . . . I wish I wasn't here either. I wish I was with her."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Route to Tragedy

Here is the chain of events that led to the deaths of two women whose car was hit by a vehicle being pursued by a Cypress police officer:

1. About 2:15 a.m., officer spots a Ford Escort with three occupants driving erratically on Orange Avenue. He directs driver to stop.

2. Driver stops; when officer approaches Escort, driver speeds away; officer follows.

3. A few seconds into pursuit, someone tosses handgun from Escort passenger-side window.

4. Escort runs red light at 80 mph and slams into a Honda Civic traveling north on Knott Avenue about 2:20 a.m. Civic's driver and passenger killed instantly; all three Escort occupants injured, taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange.

Sources: Anaheim and Cypress police departments; Researched by SHELBY GRAD/Los Angeles Times

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