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Defendant in fatal train crash testifies

Compton man says the accident that killed 11 was a suicide attempt.

May 28, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Calmly addressing a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, Juan Manuel Alvarez testified Tuesday that he intended only to kill himself, not others, when he drove his sport utility vehicle onto railroad tracks three years ago, triggering a deadly Metrolink crash.

He then apologized for causing the wreck, which killed 11 train passengers and injured 180 others.

"I feel terrible and I ask for forgiveness," Alvarez said. "I believe some of the family members are here today. I am sorry for what happened; I never meaned to hurt any of your loved ones. That could have been my mom or my dad."

On the morning of Jan. 26, 2005, Alvarez parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on railroad tracks about half a mile south of downtown Glendale. He ran from the vehicle shortly before a southbound Metrolink commuter train slammed into it. The train derailed, struck a parked Union Pacific freight train and then collided with a northbound Metrolink passenger train.

It was the most devastating wreck in Metrolink history, authorities said.

Outside the courtroom, Miguel Anthony Romero, whose brother Leonardo Romero was killed in the crash, called Alvarez's apology "unacceptable," and said it was an insincere ploy to gain compassion from the jury.

If he really wanted to commit suicide, "why didn't he stay in the car and kill himself?" said Romero, 67. "The system should prevail, and they should convict him."

A Romero family member has tried to be present at the court proceedings since the start of the trial. Other victims' relatives who were in the courtroom Tuesday declined comment.

The issue of whether the 29-year-old Compton man willfully set out to derail a train, commit arson, and maim and kill people is at the core of his trial.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Alvarez could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors Cathryn Brougham and John Monaghan allege that Alvarez doused his vehicle with gasoline, set the parking brake and willfully left his vehicle on the tracks in front of the Metrolink train.

Miguel Porras, a veteran arson investigator with the Glendale Police Department and a prosecution witness, testified last week that evidence from the crash scene showed that the SUV had been parked in such a way that it lodged under the train. And there was "absolutely no doubt" that this caused the fire after the collision, Porras said.

But on Tuesday, Alvarez, questioned by his defense attorney, Thomas W. Kielty, repeatedly said that he hadn't meant to hurt or kill anyone, other than himself.

Alvarez testified that he was trying to burn himself, but denied trying to use the "train as a match," as the prosecution has alleged.

The defendant described how on the morning of the tragedy he awoke in a good mood. He even watered the roses at his new apartment. But Alvarez, who acknowledged that he was a methamphetamine addict who suffered from delusional episodes, said he thought of suicide as he drove to a gas station.

"I guess I snapped," Alvarez said. He started hearing his wife with someone else in the back of his car. They were calling him "stupid" because he couldn't see them, he testified.

"I started to get a little freaked out," Alvarez said. "My family was trying to put me in a mental home. I started thinking I'll never get my kids."

Alvarez said he filled two water bottles with gasoline, drove to an alley near the railway tracks in Glendale, and doused his hair and the car with gas. As he sat in the car, his skin started to itch and he felt nauseous.

"I started thinking it was a bad idea to burn myself," Alvarez said. "It was going to be very, very painful."

He looked around and saw the tracks.

"That's when it came to my mind that it would be the fastest way for someone to die," Alvarez said.

He moved his vehicle onto the tracks, but soon changed his mind about dying.

"I just thought this is pretty crazy . . . the whole suicide idea," Alvarez said.

He tried to move the vehicle off the tracks, but the wheels were stuck. He jumped from the car just before the crash.

"How did you feel when you heard people had died because you put your [Jeep] on the tracks?" Kielty asked.

"Traumatic," Alvarez answered.

"You were upset?" Kielty said.

"Yes," the defendant said.

Alvarez, who was born in East Los Angeles and spent his pre-teen years in Mexicali, Mexico, described how his father abused him as a child. The defendant spoke of numerous suicide attempts, beginning at about age 8 when he tried to hang himself.

The prosecution, however, has accused Alvarez of conducting "pretend suicides," in an unsavory attempt to regain the affections of his estranged wife.

Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine Law School, said that allowing a defendant to testify in such a high-profile, emotional case was "a high-stakes issue."

"Ordinarily, it's a decision the defense would want to make at the end of the case, once all the evidence is in, because it is so risky," Rosengart said.

"His prior history, his drug use . . . all that will be fair game, as well as his credibility," Rosengart said. "It could cause the case to backfire."

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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