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A Driver's Swath of Death

The trial begins in the Santa Monica Farmers' Market tragedy. At issue: Was the crash that killed 10 people an accident or manslaughter?

September 13, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

George Russell Weller sat in a wheelchair Tuesday, wearing a loosely knotted tie, and looked up at a huge projection of his car after he had driven through an open-air market three years ago, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60.

One dead man was draped across the hood while another victim lay under the front wheels.

Weller showed no emotion as his trial opened in the horrendous Santa Monica Farmers' Market crash that prosecutors say is manslaughter and Weller's defense contends was a tragic mistake by an elderly, confused man.

The case focused nationwide attention on the dangers that can be posed by aged drivers and on systems that fail to adequately screen elderly motorists for safety.

The defense contends that Weller, now 89, succumbed to "pedal error" -- what happens when older drivers become disoriented, often by stress, and mistake the gas pedal for the brake. Lawyer Mark A. Borenstein urged jurors to consider the case a terrible tragedy. He quoted a police account of a statement Weller made immediately after the crash: "I'm in big trouble with my heart and soul. That you can't fix."

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Ambrose said witnesses reported that Weller appeared intent and drove his car through the crowded weekly market along Arizona Avenue at speeds in excess of 60 mph.

Ambrose said the case is much more than an accident, noting that witnesses said Weller was surly after the incident and told bystanders that the victims should have moved out of harm's way when they saw him approaching.

"Is the killing of 10 people just an 'oops'? Oops? I stepped on the wrong pedal. Oops?" Ambrose said. "You saw me coming, you should have gotten out of the way."

Ambrose showed gruesome pictures of the carnage high on the courtroom wall. She used a 4-by-10-foot map of the market to explain the incident, which transpired over about 20 seconds. The main witness Tuesday was Rachelle Delong, who testified that she was walking along Arizona Avenue when she saw Weller drive through a wooden barricade and speed into the crowded market. She said she saw him clearly through his open window, looking straight ahead, determined, grasping the wheel with both hands.

"People were laying on the ground, bleeding, injured. Some people were being helped by bystanders," Delong said, shaking as she recounted that day.

"I saw a woman lying on the left-hand side of 4th [Street], she was laying by herself. She had just been hit," Delong said. "I held her hand and started talking to her, I told her help was on the way." She was at the unidentified victim's side for "10 minutes, maybe longer," leaving only "when she passed away," Delong testified quietly.

The trial before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson continues today and may take six weeks. Weller is not expected to testify, and received permission to be absent from his trial in downtown L.A. on 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter. He did not return Tuesday after the lunch break.

Ambrose recounted the people who died July 16, 2003, one by one, people who had gathered for the market near the beach, one of Southern California's most popular farmers markets.

The toll began with Leroy Lattier, 55, a homeless man standing at the entrance to the farmers market. His body was flung higher than the roof of the 1992 Buick that Weller was driving, Ambrose said. "He was literally knocked out of his shoe. He was killed instantly."

Seconds later, Diana and Kevin McCarthy, 41 and 50, visiting from New York, were run down.

Next was Cindy Valladares, 3, who came to the market with her mother to see her father, who worked there.

"She was literally torn from her mother's arms. She was killed instantly," Ambrose said.

Molok Ghoulian, 62, and the child she was caring for, Brendon Esfahani, 7 months, were the next to die. Ghoulian's skin, Ambrose said, was "literally torn from her body" by the impact.

Then Theresa Breglia, 50, and Lynne Weaver, age 47. Weaver "was hit with such force that her brain was separated from her spinal column and she was killed instantly," Ambrose said.

Gloria Gonzalez, 35, was "hit so hard she was knocked out of her shoes."

Movsha Hoffman, 78, with his wife, had come on a bus "to buy some fruits and vegetables," Ambrose said. Hoffman was thrown onto the hood of his car, where his body was found after Weller's Buick came to rest more than 800 feet after entering the market.

For the entire distance, "witnesses continue to hear him stomping on and off the accelerator. He has his hands on the wheel turning the car, awake and alert," Ambrose said.

The California Highway Patrol studied the incident for two years and concluded that pedal misapplication "provides the best explanation" for Weller's acceleration through the market.

Weller's lawyer, Borenstein, told jurors that the incident was exacerbated when the car was about halfway through the market and its air bag inflated, knocking Weller's foot off the accelerator and his hands off the steering wheel.

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