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Family of 4 Killed in 1-Car Freeway Crash

Deaths: Marine, his wife and young children die in early-morning wreck near Bel-Air. Speed may have been a factor.

September 23, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Marine Corps sergeant from Camp Pendleton and his family, including a newborn daughter and toddler son, were killed Sunday morning when their car spun out of control on the San Diego Freeway near Bel-Air Estates, police said.

Sgt. Gabriel Otero, 23, was driving home from a visit to relatives in Central California when his 1988 Honda Accord struck a guardrail and a concrete pillar then flipped, causing the roof to cave in.

Police said speeding may have caused the 2:42 a.m. accident, which killed Otero; his 21-year-old wife, Heather; and their children, 20-month-old Andrew and 6-week-old Caitlyn.

The children were found secure in their car seats, and their parents were wearing seat belts, police said.

Friends and family spoke fondly of the Oteros, who lived in the San Onofre Mobile Home Park in Camp Pendleton.

Gabriel and Heather Otero were high school sweethearts in Tracy, Calif., and eloped while he was in the service and she was a student.

He became an expert marksman who instructed Marines at a rifle range.

She was a young mother who hoped to become a teacher once her children grew older.

"Heather was a beautiful young woman," said Stacie Chapman, 26, a family friend and neighbor. "Everybody kind of thought of her as 'Mrs. Cleaver.' She was just a homebody who loved to bake all kinds of things from scratch. She was a very good wife."

Chapman said the couple decided on a whim to take their family north in their new car to see relatives in the middle of last week.

The couple met while Heather was at Tracy High School and Gabriel was at another school but taking classes at Tracy. They soon eloped and moved to Twentynine Palms, where Gabriel was stationed upon returning from a stint in Okinawa, Japan.

"He'd been in the service six years," Chapman said. "He was a really good Marine."

Gabriel won medals in shooting competitions across the country.

When not perfecting his aim at the range, he had to work hard at making ends meet by delivering pizzas on the side.

Just before his death, he had used several of his vacation days doing just that, Chapman said.

"He contributed a lot to a lot of people," said Gabriel's mother, Carmen Orfiano, 53. When Gabriel met Heather, she was a champion pole vaulter who broke records at her large high school.

"Her brothers followed in her footsteps," said Heather's mother, Lori Mehrer, 42, who said her sons went on to break men's pole vaulting records at the school.

Heather left Tracy High early to be with Gabriel, but completed the classes she needed to graduate in Twentynine Palms.

"She really wanted to be a teacher," Mehrer said. "She missed going to school. She missed reading the books."

Mehrer said that her daughter's focus of late, however, was entirely on her children.

There was Andrew, with his straight hair always sticking up and with a constant smile, and Caitlyn, who just seemed to love light, and would always crawl toward it.

"Andrew's daddy had two dimples, but he just had one," Mehrer said.

"It would only show up when he smiled. So you always wanted to do something that would make him smile again."

"Caitlyn was so little," she said. "She didn't even have a chance to live."

*

Times staff writer Massie Ritsch contributed to this report.

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