A 4-year-old girl was killed Saturday morning when an auto-theft suspect being pursued by Los Angeles police ran a red light on a busy downtown street, causing a chain-reaction accident that knocked over a traffic light, crushing the girl, authorities said.
About 11:30 a.m., the suspect, driving a silver BMW sedan, was traveling east on 6th Street--with a Los Angeles police cruiser close behind--when he ran the light at Spring Street and hit a minivan heading south, said Officer Don Cox, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman.
Josephine Arias, 29, who was selling socks a block away at Broadway and 6th Street, said the suspect and police were speeding. Police could not say how fast either were going.
The speed limit in the area is 25 mph.
LAPD Cmdr. Gary Brennan said a routine investigation has been opened into Saturday's pursuit, adding that, according to preliminary information, the chase was "well within policy."
The minivan slammed into the light post, sending it onto the crowded sidewalk and killing Evelyn Vargas as she stood next to her mother, Cox said.
Robert Salazar, a resident of the nearby Hayward Hotel, watched as the girl's mother tugged at her arm, but was unable to pull her to safety. "She was just screaming, 'My girl! My girl! Please help her!'"
Resident Curtis Lee said he dropped to his knees after seeing the same thing. "We were all just praying for her," he said.
The suspect, whose name was not released, was seriously injured and taken into police custody. A man and woman in the van also were seriously injured and taken to a local hospital, Cox said.
As crowds pooled around the police tape, Arias and other witnesses told of a high-speed police pursuit through one of Los Angeles' most vibrant and crowded street scenes, where panhandlers jostle with shoppers for sidewalk space amid shoe stores, jewelry booths and liquor marts.
The suspect was driving about 55 mph, with one LAPD cruiser following close behind and another farther back, Arias said.
"They were wiggling and jiggling through the traffic," she said. "People were jumping out of the way of the BMW."
Jewelry vendor Sylvia Almaraz was angry that police would take such a risk.
"Everyday, this area is so busy," she said. "That's why we can't understand why [the police] were just flying."
According to LAPD policy, the senior officer in the pursuing car has the responsibility of deciding whether to continue a pursuit. Among other things, the officer must consider traffic, pedestrians, and just how dangerous the suspect is, weighing the potential threat to bystanders against the need to make an arrest.
"They're just plain difficult decisions," Brennan said. "But they were trying to do the right thing, I can tell you that."
The fatality comes at a time when police chases--and the number of pedestrians injured in pursuits--are on the rise in Los Angeles.
According to LAPD statistics, pursuits rose to 769 last year from 597 in 2000. Pedestrian injuries climbed to 69 in 2001, nearly double the number in 1998.
The chase, which lasted less than five minutes, began in the 500 block of Wall Street when the suspect nearly hit a patrol car, Cox said. After he refused to pull over, officers discovered the BMW had been reported stolen in Hollywood two days earlier, he said.
At that point, Brennan said, the officers called for a helicopter and backup units, and began pursuing the stolen car over a circuitous route that ended less than two miles later. The crash occurred before a helicopter arrived.
The names of the officers involved were not released, and the officers are still on duty, police said.
A pipe and a substance believed to be cocaine were found in the suspect's car, Brennan said. He had not been charged Saturday night, but he could face charges of vehicular manslaughter, felony evading and cocaine possession, he said.