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Perris High packed with mourners

Four seniors who died as a result of a horrific car accident in Escondido are remembered as `bright guys ... with plans and futures.'

June 02, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

One Perris High School senior was headed for automotive trade school. Two others were hoping to join the Navy. A fourth was heading for college and the restaurant business.

More than 1,200 students, parents, teachers and administrators flocked to the campus Friday evening to mourn the four teens who died this week in a horrific car crash in Escondido.

Pablo "Paul" Ruiz, 18; Javier Aguayo, 17; Jose Espinosa, 18; and Anthony O'Neil, 17, were heading to a school-sponsored senior outing to Mission Beach on Wednesday when their car veered off Interstate 15, struck a tree and flipped.

Ruiz, Aguayo and O'Neil died at the scene. Espinosa, who was thrown from the vehicle, died Thursday. The wreckage was so severe that investigators have been unable to determine which of the teens -- if any -- were wearing a seat belt. Open beer cans were found at the scene, authorities said.

"Some kids, they don't know what they're going to do after high school. But these were all bright guys. They had plans and futures," said Andy Roman, 16, a junior who wore a white T-shirt bearing all four of the dead teenagers' faces. "It just hurts to see them go."

Mourners gathered at the school's gym, filling both sets of bleachers and standing 12 deep near the back.

About one-third of the students wore T-shirts and buttons with the faces and names of the dead. Some laid roses beneath a large portrait of each teen mounted near the front of the room.

They sat in tight groups and hugged as they tried to grapple with the loss.

"For the class of 2007, this is a bittersweet time of both loss and hope for the future," said Principal Penny Graham. "We will never forget them and the time they spent here."

The tragedy tore open old wounds for the Riverside County high school community. Two years ago a crash during spring break killed four teenagers, including three seniors.

During the hourlong ceremony Friday, a few close friends stood behind a microphone and choked back sobs as they remembered their classmates.

Aguayo was the philosophical one who wanted to attend Universal Technical Institute to study automotive technology. Ruiz, a former wrestler, planned to join the Navy this month. Espinosa, a bright young man who stayed close to his elementary school friends, was deciding between the Navy and community college.

And O'Neil, the friendly prankster who could always put a smile on people's faces, had plans to attend Golden West College and open a restaurant with his older brother.

"It's a loss. It's just a loss," said Dennis Tinajero, 18, who graduated from Perris High last year. "I knew all four of them since middle school. They were just like family."

The teens were believed to have been racing another car, a black Honda or Acura, when the accident occurred shortly before 2 p.m., authorities said.

The black car fled the scene, prompting officers to investigate 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.

About half a dozen beer cans, including at least three that were opened, were thrown from the car during the crash, which occurred just north of Route 78 in a hilly area in north San Diego County, Kerns said.

Roman, the Perris junior, said he doubted Aguayo, the car's driver, was drinking at the time of the crash. Aguayo, he said, always passed up beer at parties.

All students with permission to go on the field trip were supposed to ride in two school-provided buses, said Leslie Ventuleth, Perris Union High School District spokeswoman.

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

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sara.lin@latimes.com

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