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Mystery surrounds 90-mph Newport Beach crash

Police are looking into whether driver Julie Allen, who died in the spectacular pileup, may have been taking medication, sources say. Before the crash, her mother's website cited an incident involving a stuck accelerator

January 18, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Julie Allen was going more than 90 mph at the time of the crash, police say.
Julie Allen was going more than 90 mph at the time of the crash, police say. (Christine Cotter/Los Angeles…)

The driver at the center of the violent fatal crash Saturday in Newport Beach was traveling more than 90 mph and police were looking into whether she was taking medications at the time, law enforcement sources told The Times on Monday.

The tan Taurus driven by Julie Allen, 27, crossed the center divider on West Coast Highway and plowed into nine other vehicles. Three people, including Allen, died.

The genesis of the accident has puzzled investigators. Allen's car was going so fast that it launched into the air during the series of collisions.

Law enforcement officials would not elaborate on the medication element, but friends of Allen said she had a history of mental health problems for which she had been prescribed drugs. No evidence has emerged indicating that Allen was off her medication. But friends said she would not have been in a condition to drive if she were having a psychological problem.

Allen's friends have insisted she was not a drinker, a drug user or even a person who swore. They also described her as a safe driver not inclined to speed or take risks.

Details of Allen's mental health history have not been confirmed by family or doctors, but friends, who requested that their names not be published, said her struggles were no secret. They said Allen had a serious episode in her senior year at Corona del Mar High School, where she achieved acclaim as one of the nation's top women prep runners.

Her extended recovery delayed her entry into Stanford, they said.

Edrick Floreal, Stanford's director of track and field, said he could not discuss Allen's medical records but said she did not have "mental health issues" when she was a runner at the university.

Former Stanford Coach Dena Evans declined to address the matter directly: "These are intensely personal matters," adding that it was best to speak to Allen's parents.

Allen was a solid contributor to an elite program at Stanford but did not achieve the acclaim as a college runner that she enjoyed in high school. In 2000, her decision to transfer high schools had been a major prep sports story.

Bill Sumner, her coach at Corona del Mar, said he was unaware of any recent episode or signs of trouble. Sumner worked regularly with Allen, who had resumed running with his Cal Coast Track Club.

Newport Beach police also have at least one other possibility to consider for the cause of the crash: a potentially stuck accelerator pedal, which was alluded to in a posting on Allen's mother's website before the crash.

An archived post on the website of Leslee Godfrey Allen, Julie's mother and a Christian Science practitioner, talks of an accelerator malfunction.

"Our daughter called from the side of the freeway," she wrote. "She said that suddenly she couldn't control the speed of the car, which was stuck at full speed. Although frightened, she'd had the presence of mind to apply the brake repeatedly, which slowed the car enough for her to pull over to the side of the road and to shift the car's transmission out of 'drive' into 'neutral' and then into 'park,' causing it to jerk to a stop."

The entry is undated and doesn't specify which of her daughters suffered the mishap. The website has since been taken down.

Allen's parents' affiliation with Christian Science prompted some friends to speculate whether they would have urged her to try to discontinue medication. But there's no evidence of that being the case.

"The church naturally would turn to prayer to heal a physical or mental or relationship problem," said Donald W. Ingwerson, a spokesman for the church in Southern California. "The church would not make a decision like that for an individual person. Whether an individual turns to prayer — that's their decision."

Christopher De La Cruz, 49, of Laguna Niguel and his mother, Linda Burnett, 69, of Santa Ana also died in the wreck. Family members and some neighbors declined to comment Monday.

Neighbor Richard Kelly described the family as friendly people who kept largely to themselves.

"What a pleasant person he was," Kelly said of De La Cruz. "He was reserved, quiet and was part of a loving family."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mike Anton, Maria La Ganga, Nate Jackson and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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