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A Father and a Neighborhood Grieve for 4

Tragedy: Warnings came too late for a mother and her three children killed in a crosswalk.

September 20, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI and DANIEL HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It seems everyone there saw Evelia Sanchez and her three children step into the crosswalk at East 70th Street and Compton Avenue, except for the driver speeding toward them at 45 mph.

Watching from his frontyard with his own young daughter, Eduardo Barraza yelled a warning. Cars idling at the intersection honked frantically.

"She turned around, but it was already too late," Barraza said. "I blinked and they weren't there anymore."

The 31-year-old Sanchez and her children--Andrea, 5, Carlos Antonio, 3, and Rafael Alejandro, 2--were tossed 60 feet, their bodies left broken and bleeding on the pavement as the van's driver, alleged to be Martin Valadez, who police say was drunk, accelerated to escape.

Two of the children died at the scene. Sanchez and Andrea died later at a hospital.

As news of the tragedy spread through the South Los Angeles neighborhood, neighbors wept and gripped their children's hands a little tighter as they crossed busy streets.

Throughout the day, scores of people visited the accident scene, where they lighted candles and filled a donation box with crumpled dollars.

Police credited quick-thinking residents who gave chase and helped corner the driver a few blocks away after he crashed his van into a tree.

"It was a concerted effort by citizens around here," said Officer John Tye, a CHP spokesman.

The accident occurred as the family crossed the intersection about 7 p.m. Wednesday after leaving a nearby health clinic. Sanchez carried Rafael Alejandro and Andrea and Carlos Antonio held hands as they stepped off the curb.

According to witnesses, cars heading south stopped, but the Dodge van barreling north did not. The vehicle struck the woman and the three children without braking, police said. The speed limit there is 30 mph.

Barraza and others stopped traffic and tried to help Sanchez and the children. Others chased the van after watching it turn onto 66th Street and smash into a tree.

Police said Valadez, 30, fled but returned to retrieve registration information from the vehicle. Witnesses then followed him to a nearby telephone booth, where he was arrested.

Girlfriend Had Reported Van Stolen

Valadez's girlfriend, Rosa Navarette, had called police to report the van stolen, leading to early confusion about whether she might have falsified the report to protect Valadez. But he in fact had taken the vehicle after a dispute with Navarette a few blocks away, said a CHP spokesman, Joseph Pace.

Valadez faces felony murder charges and is being held without bail.

Arriving home to an empty house after work, Jose Antonio Sanchez said he immediately sensed something was wrong. Normally, his children would jump into his arms and shower him with kisses.

When he heard the commotion about a family killed on Compton Avenue, he said he somehow knew people were speaking of his wife and children.

He hurried to the scene, but witnesses said they prevented Sanchez from approaching the bodies.

"They just left me, just like that," Sanchez said.

Evelia was remembered as a quiet woman who doted on her children and rarely left them out of her sight. Andrea had just started kindergarten at Miramontes Elementary School. She was the watchful big sister to her rambunctious brothers.

Over at the Sanchez's small, stucco home, Jose Antonio Sanchez greeted a stream of well-wishers with quiet thank-yous. People offered small gifts and condolences.

"Unfortunately, something like this had to happen to bring us together," said Betty Garcia, a neighbor, who stood on the Sanchezes' porch holding a homemade sign with a message asking for donations.

"Today, I met neighbors that I didn't know before," Garcia said. "People even came from other parts of town to help." For Garcia and others, the accident also called attention to what they say are the long-standing dangers for pedestrians along Compton Boulevard's four lanes between 77th Street and Slauson Avenue.

Between 1993 and 2001, seven pedestrians, including a 6-year-old, have been killed on that stretch. Some residents had recently signed a petition asking for a traffic signal at the East 70th Street intersection.

But authorities said a pedestrian education program and more crosswalks had cut the number of fatal accidents in recent years. Nothing, they said, could have stopped a drunk driver.

"You can only do so much ... when somebody who doesn't have any regard for his life or anyone else's decides to drive while intoxicated," the CHP's Tye said.

*

Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.

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