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Alleged Street Racer Arrested in Fatal Crash

A Santa Paula teen is charged with vehicular manslaughter in a December highway collision that left a 65-year-old man dead.

May 01, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County prosecutors have charged a Santa Paula teenager whose car allegedly rear-ended a man's pickup truck with vehicular manslaughter, the result of an apparent freeway race in December.

Genaro Mejia, 19, was arrested Tuesday evening in connection with the death of 65-year-old Jose Zermeno, also of Santa Paula, who had just attended his grandchild's Christmas program when Mejia's black Chevy Malibu slammed into his red pickup on California 126 as he was driving home, authorities said.

Mejia, who received minor injuries in the crash, posted $50,000 bail. He is set for arraignment May 28 on charges of vehicular manslaughter, reckless causing of injury and engaging in an illegal speed contest. The maximum potential sentence is six years in prison, the minimum is probation. Mejia could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"Basically, it was a road race situation, and he lost control and ran into the car in front of him," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond. "It appears these two individuals were racing, swerving between cars.

"We've had a rash of these road race incidents," Redmond said. "It's like a James Dean movie. People don't realize that their car is a potential problem. If you lose control, how do you stop?"

A second youth allegedly involved in the race, 18-year-old Emmanuel Rico, has not been charged and is a potential witness in the case, Redmond said.

Members of Zermeno's family expressed little relief from the filing of charges in the death of the 40-year Santa Paula resident -- a one-time disc jockey, sales manager at a car dealership and, most recently, custodian for the Santa Paula Elementary School District.

"There should be consequences for what they did, but it doesn't bring him back," said Sheriff's Sgt. Ralph Zermeno, 49, the victim's youngest brother.

Delfina Zermeno said her husband's death is still too recent for her to take comfort in Mejia's prosecution.

"Right now, I'm just really sad about the loss of my husband," said Delfina, an Oxnard teacher. "He was a good father and grandfather. He has three daughters, three grandsons and one granddaughter and another one on the way."

The December accident is one of three in Ventura County during the last 13 months in which an alleged street race resulted in injury or death.

Last month, a drag racer allegedly speeding at more than 80 mph on an Oxnard street caused a crash that injured three people.

In April 2002, the 19-year-old mother of a month-old baby was killed and her boyfriend was seriously injured as they raced the boyfriend's brother down Rose Avenue in El Rio.

The boyfriend, Darnell Thompson, then 20, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter after he lost control of his car and slammed head-on into another vehicle, police said.

Thompson was sentenced to two years in prison, a relatively light sentence, because he had no prior criminal felony record, Redmond said.

Street racing is an increasing problem both in Ventura County and around Southern California. Street racers congregate -- sometimes by the hundreds -- in a number of shopping center parking lots on Saturday nights.

"It seems like since that 'Fast and Furious' movie came out a couple of years ago, we've had more of these," Redmond said.

Police issued 28 traffic citations last summer in breaking up a drag race on Pacific Coast Highway near the Solimar Beach Colony north of Ventura.

Redmond said sheriff's deputies in the Camarillo area have been cracking down on street racers near that city as well.

"We were having a problem on the farm roads off Las Posas [Road], because the area is so wide and flat and [racers] can see police at a distance," Redmond said.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, fatal street race crashes have prompted beefed-up enforcement of anti-racing laws and new penalties against people who watch the events.

Redmond, a Ventura County prosecutor since the 1980s and head of the office's misdemeanor and felony units, said he had not seen a case involving road race deaths before the last year.

"Now we have two. And I can hear car races myself at night," said Redmond, an Oxnard resident. "They fly up and down Ventura Road and Gonzales at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning."

Witnesses say that the accident that killed Zermeno occurred after Mejia and a 16-year-old passenger appeared to be racing another car on California 118 through Saticoy, occasionally crossing double-yellow lines. Merging onto California 126, the two allegedly continued racing until Mejia's Chevy hit the rear of Zermeno's pickup, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Zermeno's truck veered off the freeway and hit a tree. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Mejia smashed into a guardrail on the center divider.

Rico fled but was later identified by investigators.

Redmond would not comment on speeds reached during the race except to say they were in excess of the legal limit, which is 65 mph on the freeway where the accident occurred.

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