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Marketgoers reflect on verdict

A day after Weller is found guilty in the Santa Monica crash that killed 10, patrons and vendors struggle with the question of punishment.

October 22, 2006|Steve Hymon and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

They squeezed cantaloupes, bought apples and sipped coffee -- like patrons and vendors always do Saturday mornings at the popular Santa Monica Farmers' Market. But just beneath the surface of their banter, many were quick to express strong opinions about the conviction of 89-year-old George Russell Weller, who killed 10 people when he plowed his Buick through the market three years ago.

"I'm glad they found him guilty -- I think he was," said vendor Cheryl Gaines, selling herbs and wreaths from her Gardens to Go/Garden Art stall.

Gaines, who pushed her partner out of the path of Weller's Buick, said the verdict "was important for the people killed or hurt that day and their families. You can never replace family members."

The carnage "really took away the innocence" of the market, she said. The verdict has at least helped to close a chapter that has left a tragic imprint on the market that Gaines described as a "nice place where people come together and look at peaches."

Most of two dozen people interviewed Saturday morning at the market agreed with the verdict but struggled with the issue of punishment. And many felt California should toughen licensing regulations for elderly drivers.

The market crash prompted a reevaluation of state rules, but lawmakers have rejected proposals for mandatory annual road tests for seniors.

Weller could be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Noting that such a term would amount to a life sentence for Weller, shopper Phoebus Tongis said the Department of Motor Vehicles "and the state of California should be given a life sentence."

"That man is close to 90 years old," the Santa Monica resident said. "What do you expect from a driver who's almost 90?"

Sue Gold of Marina del Rey offered a similar view.

"I don't think it is going to help to put an 89-year-old man in jail," she said. "Put him under house arrest if need be.

"I would have found him guilty -- he shouldn't go free," Gold added. "But maybe it would be better to take the money that it would cost to put him in jail and instead use it to begin testing people who drive more frequently so this kind of thing does not happen again. I'm 60, and I haven't been tested since I was 16."

Others, like Sunny Miller, felt empathy for Weller.

"I feel sorry for the guy; he probably just lost control and went into shock," she said. "It's an accident. It happens all the time."

Others said that Weller's age should not be a factor.

"We need justice," said Mark Carpenter, a Santa Paula grower selling tomatoes and squash. "When that guy got out of his car he was an old surly guy who showed no remorse. I don't care how old that guy is. He needs to go to jail."

Sitting under a canopy at the market's center and wearing a purple tunic, Kahmiim Gufur was peddling lavender plants and lotions.

"No fuss or fight, get your body right," he called out to potential customers. "Use enough, and you might get lucky tonight."

But he can still describe in detail that July day at the market when Weller's car passed just a few feet from where he was standing.

"I told a woman to look out, and she got hit and knocked over right in front of me," he said. "There was a body under the car and one on the hood, and the one on the hood hit the woman" who Gufur said was injured.

"There was no doubt he was guilty," Gufur said, declining to speculate on an appropriate punishment. "It's not my area of expertise -- what do you say to someone who killed people? It's the whole thing about punishment versus rehabilitation. How do you rehabilitate him? Did he ever apologize to me? He never apologized to me. He made it home that day before I did. That never settled with me."

The warm weather Saturday brought scores of shoppers to the market. People pushed strollers or pulled fold-up carts to stash their purchases.

But at each end of the market a police squad car blocked the street -- to reinforce barricades and provide a buffer against the possibility of another errant driver.

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