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Teen lives with tragic end of street race

Riverside high school student tells audience of 1,400 of his daily remorse over killing a woman in a wheelchair.

June 07, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Standing before 1,400 students in Riverside's Martin Luther King High School gymnasium, Trais Hand solemnly apologized Wednesday for killing a mother of two in her wheelchair.

Trais, 16, quietly spoke of the night in October when, a month after obtaining his driver's license, he was involved in a street race and his car went up a sidewalk and killed 38-year-old Reyna De Leon.

"There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about this and how many people it affected forever," Trais told the students. "I took someone's life, which is worse than the jail time or anything. You can't take that back."

De Leon's brother, John De Leon, spoke after Trais, telling the high school students that he still struggles to cope with his sister's death and detailing the hardships his nephew and niece face living without their mother.

The testimonies were part of a Riverside Police Department presentation on the dangers of street racing, an illegal and sometimes deadly hazard that is gaining popularity in Southern California. Trais' wrecked car and De Leon's mangled wheelchair were in front of the gymnasium, visible to students as they entered the building.

Trais' presentation was also part of the sentence he received after he pleaded guilty in February to charges of illegal street racing and vehicular manslaughter. He served 106 days in juvenile hall.

The driver he raced against is awaiting trial.

Trais said his nerves kicked in as he walked to the microphone.

"But I knew it was the right thing to do," said Trais, a student at John W. North High School in Riverside. "I was hoping it has an impact. You can only do so much, and then it is up to other people to make the right choice."

The accident occurred Oct. 26, 2006, as Trais raced along Olivewood Avenue in Riverside. As Reyna De Leon waited to cross the street with her 14-year-old daughter, Trais lost control of his 2001 Jetta, striking her.

John De Leon said that he was more than 50 miles away, mired in traffic, when he received the phone call that his sister had been injured.

"My sister was a single parent with two kids," De Leon told the audience. "When you get that phone call, I don't care how big of a man you think you are, you break down and cry."

He said that he has since forgiven Trais.

"He's not a bad kid. He's guilty of a bad decision," he said. "He didn't set out to hurt somebody, but unfortunately he did."

Riverside Police Sgt. Skip Showalter has conducted presentations aimed at deterring street racing the last two years. They usually include videos and PowerPoint slide shows.

This is the first, he said, in which a convicted offender acknowledged his tragic error in front of the audience. "I think they can identify with a peer more than an adult," Showalter said. "Hopefully, they can get an idea of how tragic a thing this can be."

As Showalter concluded his speech, students spilled from the gym bleachers. Many hesitated on their way out, stopping to hug Trais and John De Leon.

"I felt sad," said senior Jessica Ortega. "He didn't try to kill that lady, but unfortunately street racing is something a lot of kids do."

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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