A Wilmington woman twice cited for failing to put her children in car safety seats now faces a murder charge after her 3-year-old son died in a crash.
None of Angela Marie Cerpa's four children was properly secured when her 1997 Honda Civic slammed into a tree April 5 in Carson, authorities said. Her driver's license was suspended at the time, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records.
"This was more than a gross disregard of safety," said Sgt. Dale Johnson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Carson station. "She was putting her kids in a situation where if anything happened, something serious was going to happen, and it did."
In addition to murder, the district attorney charged Cerpa, 23, with four counts of child abuse for the injuries to her children. Authorities are awaiting the results of blood tests to determine if she was under the influence.
Cerpa, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing May 25. She is being held in lieu of $1.45-million bail.
Although it's not unusual for prosecutors to file murder charges in traffic cases, especially drunk driving, officials said Cerpa's case is rare.
"I've been here 16 years, and I know of no case with this circumstance," said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Cerpa's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Aparna Voleti, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Motor Vehicle Department records show Cerpa was cited for violating California's child passenger restraint law in 2002 and 2003. Children are required to be in child safety seats until they are at least age 6 or weigh 60 pounds.
Cerpa's driver's license was suspended March 20 for failure to provide proof of insurance. It had also been suspended in 2003 and 2004 because Cerpa was found to be a "negligent operator." No explanation was given.
She was placed on two years' probation in September 2003 for a hit-and-run case involving property damage, according to DMV records.
Robert Pugsley, a criminal law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, said prosecutors would typically pursue an involuntary manslaughter charge in such a case. But Cerpa's record and the fact that it was a one-vehicle accident probably played a part in the district attorney's decision to file a murder charge, Pugsley said.
"The ratcheting up of the charge is the first I've ever heard of in this kind of case," he said. "However, the law is supposed to act not only as punishment, but as a deterrent.
"People have been told for years to lock their children in safety seats. This woman received two prior warnings, but it obviously meant nothing to her."
Stephanie Tombrello of SafetyBeltSafe USA, which promotes child car safety, said the district attorney's action sends a strong message.
"Enforcement of the law should be very strict," she said. "Sometimes there are no good answers for preventing things, but this is one we have an answer to. It's simple. This is what you do with children in the car: You restrain them."
Sheriff's investigators are uncertain what caused Cerpa's car to veer off Figueroa Street and slam into a tree.
A passerby told officers "all she heard was children screaming" when she raced to the car after it struck the tree at 40 to 45 mph, Johnson said.
Jeremy Ruiz, riding in the front seat, was crumpled under the dashboard. He died at a hospital six hours later. In the rear seat were Leah, 6 months; Jacob, 18 months; and Jesus Ruiz, 4. The oldest boy broke his leg, and the others suffered minor or moderate injuries.