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Newport Beach crash victims' family shares memories of loved ones

Chris De La Cruz, 49, and his mother, Linda Burnett, 69, often spent Saturdays together. Last week, that tradition put them in harm's way.

January 24, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Chris De La Cruz was the married father of two, a quiet, offbeat man with an artistic turn. A single mother, Linda Burnett had worked multiple jobs to raise Chris and his brother.

Mother and son often made Saturday their time together, grabbing a curried chicken salad sandwich at C'est Si Bon in Newport Beach and catching a film afterward.

On Jan. 15, De La Cruz, 49, and Burnett, 69, didn't make it past the busy intersection of Riverside Avenue and West Coast Highway, adjacent to the bakery.

They perished in a 10-car crash at 2:43 p.m., when a car driven by Julie Allen, a popular 27-year-old former track standout, crossed the center divider of busy West Coast Highway, at a speed that authorities said reached nearly 100 mph.

As investigators sifted through evidence, friends and coaches recalled the young and promising woman who came to such a bizarre and violent end. Now De La Cruz's family members have stepped forward to tell their story.

De La Cruz graduated from the same high school as Allen — Corona del Mar — but 23 years earlier.

Younger brother Michael De La Cruz, 48, recalls periods of powdered milk, block cheese and syrup on a plate.

Friend Mark McCumsey remembers going to Bible study and Christian camps with Chris, who loved the Beatles, "Star Trek" and pizza. He also liked to sing and strum a guitar, and he played in bands. One of his mother's proudest moments was when Chris won a small part as a slave boy in "Aida" with a local opera company.

Chris had striking looks and kept his greaser style, with slicked back hair, white T-shirt and rolled-up jeans. He met Debbie Brown, who was a few years younger, when she was 16. The two never parted.

"Not a day went by that he didn't tell me how beautiful I was," Brown said.

After graduating from Orange Coast College, De La Cruz worked for years in customer service at a parcel delivery service. On the side, he collected and worked on motorcycles and model trains. He loved fine chocolate, Charles Bukowski novels, Shakespeare and his cat, Mr. Wooly. More recently, he had been developing painting and sculpting skills.

"His work is beautiful," said daughter Stephanie Grimmell, 23, sitting next to her brother Nicholas, 24, at a relative's home. "We have stuff of his all around the house. He always told us to go for our dreams."

The family lives in a three-bedroom tract home in Laguna Niguel; Brown says they'd talked of moving to Laguna Beach, living in a shack if need be. Times have been tight since Brown was laid off from her sales job.

Burnett had been an accountant; with her boys grown, the Santa Ana resident traveled the world, going everywhere solo on a shoe-string budget — Turkey, Russia, China — even potentially dangerous areas, where she would purchase local crafts. At home, she adored museums and enjoyed organic food. She liked to spend time with her sons every weekend it was possible, and they returned her affection.

That Saturday night, Michael saw television reports about a horrible crash at an intersection he'd passed through a thousand times. He didn't recognize the 2004 gray Toyota Tacoma.

He awoke to pounding on his door and the flashlights of police officers and the coroner: "I never thought they'd be telling me that my whole family had been taken."

A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, 27231 Aliso Viejo Parkway in Aliso Viejo. The family has set up a fund to defray funeral costs and other expenses: the De La Cruz/Burnette Memorial Fund, 30025 Alicia Parkway, P.O. Box 164, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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