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Driver Only Hit People, Not Cars, Official Says

A CHP investigator contends George Weller was steering when he killed 10 at a farmers' market because he avoided other vehicles.

September 22, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

Rich Wong has investigated 9,500 auto accidents in 19 years with the California Highway Patrol, but he testified Thursday that nothing prepared him for what he saw at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market three years ago.

"I deal with death every day," said Wong, who headed the CHP investigation. "But this was way above and beyond."

It was Wong's duty to survey the dimensions of the July 2003 tragedy, in which 10 pedestrians were killed and more than 60 people were injured after George Russell Weller, then 86, drove a 1992 Buick through the open air market.

Jurors leaned forward to follow Wong's laser pointer as he highlighted details of accident scene photographs in Weller's trial on charges of manslaughter.

Weller's defense is that he pushed the accelerator when he meant to press the brake. Jurors in Los Angeles County Superior Court must determine if the crash was an accident or a crime.

Wong's CHP teams found that while traveling more than 800 feet down Arizona Avenue, Weller's car struck more than 70 pedestrians -- but none of the dozens of vehicles parked in the market.

Jurors heard about "head strikes" -- evidence of heads striking windshields -- and "roof vaults" -- indications of bodies striking and deforming metal car roofs -- as Wong relayed the more gruesome aspects of his trade.

Wong said he found evidence of four head strikes on the windshield of Weller's car: spider web configurations of cracked glass and human hair and tissue retrieved from cracks.

The front of the roof was deformed several inches downward, Wong testified.

That confirmed eyewitness accounts of victims struck and thrown over the top of the car, he said.

"A roof vault never occurs below 20 mph," Wong testified. "These roof vaults occur at average speeds of between 35 and 38 mph, with an average of 37 mph."

Prosecutors contend Weller was largely in control of the car, based on witness accounts that he was steering and testimony from experts such as Wong, who said that the swerving car didn't hit other vehicles.

The defense contends that Weller was suffering from shock and did not realize he was accelerating instead of braking. Defense attorney Mark Borenstein suggested that an airbag that deployed midway through the carnage knocked Weller's hands off the wheel and obscured his vision at a critical point.

Wong said his investigators found no skid marks or evidence of hard braking by Weller. He said the CHP determined that the car stopped because it dragged a shopping cart, a trashcan and a person.

"It was the drag from these three items that caused the vehicle to come to a stop," Wong testified.

The street's gutters are lower than the middle of the road, so the steering wheel must be turned for a vehicle to move from side to side, as witnesses say Weller's car did, Wong said. A reconstruction of the incident showed that Weller must have turned the wheel, or engaged in "active steering," at least three times, Wong said.

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