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With Few Clues, Market Crash Victim Remained a Mystery

After a week, relatives of Theresa Breglia are found. Family, friends say she was troubled.

July 23, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Theresa Breglia's slender 5-foot frame was the first body recovered by coroner's investigators a week ago at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market crash site.

The 50-year-old woman's jet-black hair was set off by a light pink jacket. She wore a beige shirt and brown pants. A cloth pouch wrapped around her slim waist contained no money, only a New York state driver's license and seven bus tokens -- five for the Los Angeles MTA, two for Santa Monica transit.

For five days, those few clues were of little help to investigators who struggled to find Breglia's next of kin. No one filed a missing-persons report on her. No one came forward to claim her body. Calls to the Bronx, N.Y., address on her license, and to the Moreno Valley home listed in computer databases came to nothing.

Finally, on Tuesday, a picture began to emerge of Theresa Breglia.

Acquaintances and family members described a troubled woman who struggled for years with mental illness. She was living with her sister in the Bronx until June, when she flew to Los Angeles, saying she wanted to reunite with her ex-husband. But the meeting never happened, and no one knows exactly how she spent the last month of her life.

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The coroner's office had little difficulty tracking down the families of the other nine people who died after a speeding car drove through the farmers market last week. But Theresa Breglia was a mystery from the start.

Working off the Bronx address on her license, they asked police to pay a visit to the row house. Officers from New York City's 43rd Precinct went by several times, but no one was home.

By Monday, investigators had asked newspapers and television stations to publicize her case to draw someone forward.

They also passed the case on to Doyle G. Tolbert, a coroner's investigator who specializes in locating next of kin.

"All these loose ends were just hanging there," Tolbert said of the case. "Somebody does not just go to the farmers market, have this happen and not have someone come looking. It intrigued me because of the questions as to what was going on."

Tolbert on Monday began running Breglia's name through nationwide computer databases, checking for any credit reports or property records that would provide a clue. Finally, a match turned up. It led Tolbert down a paper trail from an apartment in Queens, N.Y., to a home owned by Breglia's ex-husband, Steven, in Moreno Valley.

But the Queens address was an old one, and no one answered the phone in Moreno Valley.

On Tuesday, Tolbert reached Virginia Mercado, Breglia's sister in the Bronx, who was distraught over the news.

"She was a kind person," Mercado later said in an interview with The Times. "She wanted to go far away from New York and find a life out [in California]. She wanted to see her husband. She liked it out there."

Mercado said that Breglia had come to live with her in the Bronx in 1998 after her husband moved to Moreno Valley. On June 8, after years of struggling to find work in New York, Mercado said, Breglia scraped together the money for a plane ticket to Los Angeles. She left, Mercado said, with a plastic bag and a beat-up blue suitcase.

Over the next month, Mercado received several letters from Breglia saying she was in Santa Monica trying to find lodging. She said she was also looking for a job to earn the bus fare to Moreno Valley. Coroner's officials speculate that she was homeless during this time but aren't sure. Workers at several homeless shelters and hotels in Santa Monica said they didn't know Breglia.

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People who knew Breglia said she was struggling with mental illness. Vivian Latorre, who rented Breglia and her husband an apartment in Queens for six years in the early 1990s, said the woman often called the police, fearful that someone was trying to shoot her through the window. She added that Breglia would often speak in a little girl's voice and occasionally in the voice of an elderly woman.

"I would say, 'Theresa, why are you talking like that, you're a grown woman,' " Latorre said. "And Theresa would say, 'No, I'm a little girl.' "

Breglia's sister, however, said she never saw that side of her.

Breglia's ex-husband, Steven, has multiple sclerosis and moved to Moreno Valley so his sister could care for him. Lois Breglia said that her brother had married Theresa in 1985 and that their marriage had been rocky from the start.

Shortly after Steven Breglia moved to Moreno Valley, the couple divorced, according to Lois Breglia. Steven Breglia is now in the final stages of his disease, she said, and she worries how he will handle news of Theresa's death.

"He still loved her," Lois Breglia said. "If I get him upset with this, it could kill him."

She added that she was "dumbfounded" Monday night when police arrived at her door to inform her of Theresa's death. She and her brother had no idea Theresa was even in California.

Because the couple were divorced, coroner's officials determined that Mercado is the lawful next of kin. Tolbert, the coroner's investigator, told Mercado it is her responsibility to arrange with a funeral home for Theresa's body to be transported back to New York.

Families are usually given 10 days to make arrangements, Tolbert said, before he contacts the county morgue to arrange a cremation.

Even with some of the puzzle pieces in place, family members still wish they knew more about Breglia's final days. Crying, her sister wondered Tuesday what she was doing at the farmers market when the car careened through.

Tolbert said his job is done but he remains curious.

"This is a case where every time you get a piece of information it brings up more unknowns."

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Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Li Fellers contributed to this report.

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