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Car Rams Playground; 2 Preschoolers Killed

Tragedy: Police say Santa Ana driver intentionally slammed into day-care center's yard, injuring at least 5.

May 04, 1999|PHIL WILLON and MEGAN GARVEY and JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Santa Ana man plowed his Cadillac into a Costa Mesa playground filled with preschoolers Monday evening, killing two children and injuring at least five other people in what police believe was an act of revenge against the school.

The car smashed through the play area of the Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center shortly after 5 p.m., turning a yard filled with more than 40 laughing children into a field of shrieking boys and girls.

"We believe that he intentionally ran into the playground," said Lt. Ron Smith of the Costa Mesa Police Department. "It looked like he made a deliberate turn into the playground, striking seven people. . . . We don't know what his reasons were. There may be an indication that something went on there between him and the people who worked there about four to five years ago."

Police found the dazed driver, Steve Allen Abrams, 39, still sitting in the driver's seat when they arrived.

Abrams, who worked for Ticket Shack, a Costa Mesa ticket agency a few blocks from the school, is being held on two counts of murder.

Officers immediately hauled Abrams away in handcuffs, whisking him past a horrified mob of neighbors, parents and workers from a nearby church who jeered and cursed the suspect.

Witnesses told police that Abrams accelerated into the schoolyard at about 35 or 40 mph, crashing through the fence and into a tree, trapping two boys and a girl under his 1967 copper-colored Cadillac.

Police found no skid marks or other indication that Abrams attempted to stop. There were no signs of alcohol or drug use, police said.

"When he was arrested, he didn't express any remorse, and he didn't say anything about it being an accident," Smith said.

Police said they did not know the possible nature of the dispute between Abrams and the day-care center, but they did not believe he currently had a child at the center. One day-care employee said Abrams' beef was with the previous owner of the center but had no other details. Police said none of the teachers they interviewed at Southcoast had heard of Abrams.

About 30 minutes before the tragedy, Abrams was involved in a hit-and-run incident on the Costa Mesa Freeway, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Abrams and a female passenger were heading north on the freeway near MacArthur Boulevard at 4:35 p.m., tailgating a green Toyota Camry. When the Camry slowed down, Abrams rammed the car and then sped away, authorities said. One occupant in the Camry suffered minor injuries.

Abrams' Cadillac was spotted near the preschool about half an hour later. According to witnesses he drove past the playground, made a U-turn, then crashed through the fence. He was alone in the car.

A boy and girl trapped beneath the Cadillac were killed. Sierra Soto, 4, was pronounced dead at the scene and Brandon Wiener, a 3-year-old boy, died at 7 p.m. at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, police and hospital officials said.

A third preschooler, Victoria Sherman, 5, was in critical condition Monday night at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. The other children--2-year-old Jasmine Saltzman and 3-year-old Ian Wright--suffered minor injuries and were released from Hoag on Monday night.

Danielle Diaz-Knecht, a 24-year-old teacher's aide, was outside watching over the playing preschoolers when she was sideswiped by the Cadillac, cutting her hands and body. She spent the night at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

"I had a couple of kids by the swing. All of a sudden I didn't hear anything. I just got hit, and I just fell. I felt like something was going to come again," a tearful Diaz-Knecht said from the hospital. "I was putting my hands up and curling up and it hit my hand again. I remember seeing all the kids falling, everyone screaming.

"I got up and I tried to move kids out of the way . . . out of the yard so they wouldn't see anything. Everyone was screaming. I saw a little girl lying by the sandbox not moving."

Neighbors sprinted into the playground once they heard the crash and children's screams, and futilely attempted to lift the car off the pinned preschoolers.

"You feel so helpless because you can't pull them out. They were pretty lifeless," said Adam Brown, a youth pastor from the Lighthouse Coastal Community Church, just across Magnolia Street from the school.

Brown said emergency crews were on the scene within minutes, just as many parents drove up to pick up their waiting children.

Sean Peco, 35 of Laguna Beach, showed up at the center to pick up his 2-year-old son, Nicholas McHardy.

"It was complete pandemonium," he said.

Nicholas had been attending the center only a month or two. Nicholas' mother, Carolyn McHardy, had sent him there because it was around the block from where they lived.

Peco said his son had facial fractures and was heavily sedated in critical condition at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. "It looks bad," he said. "He's got raccoon eyes."

About 80 youngsters attend the preschool and regular school program at the educational center, a teacher said.

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