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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Bella Maggiore Chef Killed When Train Hits His Rental Car

Tragedy: Charles Despenza III, 48, died instantly. The rail crossing near PCH is unprotected by crossing gates.

May 21, 2000|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — The executive chef at downtown Ventura's posh Bella Maggiore Inn was killed instantly when his rental car was struck by an Amtrak passenger train Saturday afternoon about two miles north of Emma Wood State Beach, the California Highway Patrol said.

Charles Vincent Despenza III, 48, of Ventura, had been in the area to check out a used car for sale at a local residence when the freak accident occurred shortly before 4 p.m., authorities said.

Craig Stevens, a deputy county coroner, said investigators believe Despenza's foot slipped off the brake or he didn't see the train while trying to cross the tracks on San Miguelito Road. The train struck the driver's side of the car and ejected Despenza, who was not wearing a seat belt.

"I have talked with everyone. I was told he was happy and enjoying what he was doing and there is absolutely nothing to suggest this was intentional," Stevens said.

Just before the crash, the Amtrak engineer on board had activated the train's lights and sounded a horn because the location is not equipped with crossing gates, authorities said.

"I talked with the engineer, and he said the car came on the tracks just as the train approached the intersection," Stevens added.

According to witnesses, Despenza was driving a rented Pontiac Grand Am on Pacific Coast Highway in an area known as Faria Beach and appeared to be looking for a place to make a U-turn when he approached the railroad crossing.

"For some unknown reason he just went for it," said Debora Benavides, a Ventura resident who was sitting on the beach when she heard the collision and ran to help. "There was no saving him."

The crash pushed Despenza's car about 50 feet down the tracks before it flipped and came to rest upside down just east of the rails. The impact severed two tires and ripped off the rear bumper, which landed in a culvert about 35 feet away.

Despenza suffered massive head and body injuries, authorities said.

Although Amtrak officials declined to comment on the crash, authorities said the six-car train was headed south to San Diego at about 55 mph when it occurred. The train stayed parked on the tracks about 100 feet from the crash site for more than two hours while Amtrak officials dispatched another engineer to relieve the one who witnessed the crash, authorities said.

Several dozen surfers and sunbathers from a nearby beach walked to the crash site to watch authorities work.

The incident remained under investigation Saturday night.

According to a written statement, Despenza had joined the staff of the hotel's restaurant, Nona's Courtyard Cafe, about a month ago after working offshore for a catering company.

"Charles had already made a number of friends among our staff over the short time we worked with him, and he will be sorely missed," according to the statement.

Despenza is survived by his son, who lives in Oregon, his mother in the San Diego area and a girlfriend in Ventura.

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