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Driver Error Blamed in Market Crash

CHP report excludes other possible causes in the incident that left 10 dead. Elderly motorist may face charges.

December 04, 2003|Carl Ingram, Anna Gorman and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

Human error was the only possible cause of the summer tragedy at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market when an elderly man drove through a crowd of shoppers, killing 10 people, according to a California Highway Patrol report obtained by The Times.

The preliminary report leaves the decision on whether to criminally charge the driver, 86-year-old George Russell Weller, to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. A spokesman for Cooley's office said any decision was several weeks away.

The summary of the investigation by a special CHP unit meticulously excluded other possible causes, such as weather or mechanical failure of the 1992 Buick LeSabre that Weller drove. The report states that Weller caused a minor traffic accident immediately before he accelerated and plowed through dozens of pedestrians at the popular street market, coming to rest 995 feet away.

"During this 995 feet, 10 persons were killed and 63 injured. If Mr. Weller had placed his foot on the brake while traveling westbound on Arizona Avenue through the Farmers' Market street fair, the Buick would have stopped," the CHP concluded.

Weller was taking prescription medication that causes nausea and dizziness, and he suffered from arthritis. He had undergone hip replacements that reduced his mobility and may have led to Weller's placing his foot on the gas instead of the brake, according to the preliminary investigative report.

Weller reached speeds of 60 mph or more through the market with his "eyes open, hands on the steering wheel at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position," according to the report.

Witnesses told investigators that he didn't slow down or step on the brakes and that they heard only the revving of the Buick's engine. He stared straight ahead and steered through the market, avoiding parked cars on either side of the street, the report said.

Weller, who is a longtime Santa Monica resident, "was aware of the conditions in the vicinity of the Farmers' Market street fair," the report said.

CHP investigators interviewed more than 600 witnesses, viewed videotapes and photographs and did an elaborate, second-by-second reconstruction of the July 16 incident.

They are expected to complete their investigation by Friday, and the Santa Monica Police Department, which asked the CHP for assistance, could make a recommendation to prosecutors by mid-December. Both police and prosecutors have received the report. Weller could face charges of involuntary manslaughter or murder.

The report provides the first authoritative account of the accident, which shocked the seaside city and prompted calls for tougher driving restrictions for senior citizens.

The incident began when Weller drove his Buick to the Santa Monica Post Office on 5th Street, where he pulled alongside a mailbox and dropped in a letter from the passenger seat. He then slid over to the driver's seat and turned onto Arizona Avenue.

At 1:46 p.m., his car ran at low speed into a Mercedes-Benz, driven by Pauline Kokozyon, which had stopped on Arizona Avenue and was preparing to turn onto 4th Street as the light turned green. He rubbed his right front bumper against the left rear bumper of the Mercedes, pushing the other car into the crosswalk. Both cars suffered minor damage.

The Buick then steadily gained speed as Weller left the intersection, heading toward the street market 245 feet away.

Weller's foot was on the gas pedal, and "there were no mechanical conditions identified that could have caused the Buick to accelerate on its own," investigators wrote. No canes, carpets or anything else got in the way to inadvertently jam the pedal, the report said.

There was also no evidence that he was unconscious or having a seizure, according to the report.

He sped past an orange "ROAD CLOSED AHEAD" sign and into the market along Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd streets, the report said.

Weller then drove into the entrance of the market, where he hit the first victim, a homeless man from Louisiana. Weller's car then struck one victim after another, killing a 7-month-old baby, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team and an elderly Lithuanian immigrant, among others.

Those who died are Molok Ghoulian, 62, and Brendon Esfahani, 7 months, both from West Los Angeles; Gloria Gonzalez, 35, of Venice; Movsha Hoffman, 73, of Santa Monica; Leroy Lattier, 55, from Louisiana; Diana McCarthy, 41, and Kevin McCarthy, 50, of Venice; Lynne Ann Weaver, 47, of Woodland Hills; Cindy Palacios Valladares, 3, of Koreatown, and Theresa Breglia, 50, from the Bronx, N.Y.

Through the 2 1/2 blocks of the market, Weller kept the car within the 20-foot-wide pedestrian walking area as he sped past the fruit and vegetable stands. Investigators didn't rule out "pedal error" -- applying pressure on the gas pedal instead of the brakes -- as a possible explanation. The brakes on his Buick were functioning properly, according to the report.

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