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Families, friends mourn loss of 4 Perris teenagers

The high school seniors are fondly remembered amid tears. Reports say the boys were speeding and being rowdy as they drove to a school event.

June 01, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Anthony O'Neil and his brother, Chance, had big plans. They dreamed of opening an Italian restaurant together. Chance, a master chef in Orange County, would handle the cooking, while Anthony would run the business side.

Their plans were abruptly cut short Wednesday when Anthony, a Perris High School senior, and two of his classmates died in a horrific car crash on a senior trip to San Diego. A fourth student died Thursday of injuries suffered in the crash.

Pablo "Paul" Ruiz, 18; Javier Aguayo, 17; Jose Espinosa, 18; and Anthony, 17, were heading to a school-sponsored senior outing to Mission Beach when their car went off Interstate 15 in Escondido, struck a tree and flipped. The students are believed to have been racing another car, a black Honda or Acura, when the accident occurred shortly before 2 p.m., authorities said.

On a street corner outside Perris High School on Thursday, students trickled by a makeshift memorial.

A few brought bouquets of flowers and candles. Some cried as they walked past, while others lingered and looked on in disbelief.

Senior Viviane Macias, 18, laid a bouquet of yellow and white roses beneath a yellow sign reading "We Will Miss You All."

"We just can't believe they're gone," she said. "They were all outgoing guys who were all excited to be graduating. This was our senior trip; we were all happy."

The trip was to be one of the high points of Senior Week, before the last day of class Friday and graduation Saturday. All the students with permission to go on the field trip were supposed to ride in the two school-provided buses, said Leslie Ventuleth, Perris Union High School District spokeswoman.

But authorities said at least three carloads of them trailed the buses, which carried about 80 students, to the coast.

Some of the students in cars sent the bus passengers text messages informing them of the crash, said Macias, who said she cried as rumors spread about who died.

The accident occurred just north of California 78 in a hilly area. The black car drove off and officers were investigating the case as a hit-and-run, though the two vehicles did not appear to have collided.

Witnesses said the two cars' occupants made rude hand gestures as they weaved in and out of lanes at speeds between 90 and 100 mph.

The teens were also seen waving beer cans out the window as they passed one of the Perris High buses, California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Kerns said.

The accident was the second in recent years to claim the lives of four Perris High School students. Two years ago a crash during spring break killed four teenagers, including three seniors.

Wednesday's tragedy came just a month after the CHP, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups held a two-day program at the school warning students not to drink and drive.

Student volunteers took part by portraying drivers and victims of simulated deadly crashes, and there was a mock memorial for the dead.

Classmate Macias remembered Ruiz as a happy-go-lucky kid who donated blood with her two months ago. He planned to join the military next month, she said.

Rodrigo Aguayo, Javier's older brother, said: "He was a good kid. He didn't deserve what happened to him. None of them did."

About a dozen members of Anthony's family gathered at the crash site Thursday afternoon to grieve and pray.

He was the prankster of the family, they said, always putting smiles on faces. Anthony's father, Patrick, picked his way through the wreckage looking for signs of his son.

He found an inch-long piece of the boy's watch and a chunk of his cellphone, both covered in dust.

"It's all we have left of him," he said. "We just wish we could have been here for him."

Nearby, two Perris High seniors sobbed and hugged each other. They said they were supposed to be in the car but got on the bus at the last minute.

"Javier was a good friend. He was all about having a good time and being with friends," said Luis Ascencio, 17, choking back sobs.

Anthony planned to attend Golden West College to study business, family members said.

Thursday was supposed to be moving day as the teenager packed a few bags to take to his older brother's Huntington Beach apartment.

Chance, 22, had talked to Anthony just minutes before the accident.

"They told me they were on their way to the beach, that they couldn't wait to graduate. I told them to be careful," the older brother said. An hour later, his father called with the grave news.

Before leaving to pick up Anthony's personal effects at the San Diego County medical examiner's office, the family formed a circle and held hands in prayer.

A cousin draped a red rosary on a makeshift cross. Chance knelt over the dirt patch outlined in orange spray paint where the crumpled car had sat.

He rubbed a folded black bandana into the dirt before he stood and left.

A memorial service for the four students will be held today at 6 p.m. in the school gym, school officials said.

Times staff writer Roy Rivenburg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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