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Man Held in Fatal Hit-Run on Freeway

Crime: A witness to the Interstate 5 incident in which a tow-truck driver was killed followed the suspect to his Rancho Santa Margarita home and alerted police.

July 19, 2001|THUY-DOAN LE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Rancho Santa Margarita man was arrested late Tuesday in the hit-and-run death of a tow-truck driver on Interstate 5 after a witness followed him more than five miles, calling police on her cell phone when he pulled into his driveway.

Donald Preston, 46, allegedly struck and killed Francisco Gallardo, a 27-year-old tow operator from Mission Viejo. Gallardo was helping a motorist with a flat tire on the shoulder of southbound Interstate 5 near Lake Forest Drive when he was hit.

Preston was arrested and booked on suspicion of felony hit-and-run driving, gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Joanne O'Hare.

Officers said Gallardo was just climbing out of his tow truck about 9:45 p.m. when he was hit.

"He got out of his car, closed the door and we heard a big rush," said Lakesha Johnson, the 19-year-old driver who called the tow service. "He didn't make it past his truck."

Johnson said the driver who hit Gallardo stopped briefly before speeding off. "He knew he hit someone. He swerved a bit, braked, then he stopped and drove away," she said.

Investigators said a 31-year-old Laguna Hills woman followed Preston's 1998 Dodge pickup down the freeway, then along surface streets until he stopped at his Rancho Santa Margarita residence. The woman called 911 and waited until officers arrived and arrested Preston.

CHP Officer Mark Reeves said that it isn't usually advisable for witnesses to follow or chase suspects, but in this case the woman's instincts helped police find the driver.

"Each situation is different, so the person has to evaluate the scene and do what he or she believes is safe," Reeves said. "The witness also has to be careful if the other person knows he or she is being followed."

Johnson said the incident left her and her three passengers shaken. Other motorists, she said, pulled over to comfort her and her friends.

"We have to live with this the rest of our lives," she said.

*

Times staff photographer Karen Tapia contributed to this report.

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