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Aide to L.A. Councilman Richard Alarcon charged in fatal accident

An intoxicated homeless man was struck and killed by a car driven by Alarcon aide Manuel Figueras in March. He faces a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter.

August 18, 2012|By David Zahniser and Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, seen in January, charged Alarcon aide Manuel Figueras with a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, seen in January, charged Alarcon aide Manuel… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

A deputy to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon who struck and killed a pedestrian while driving a city car earlier this year was charged Friday with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Manuel "Manny" Figueras, 50, was driving a 2003 Toyota Prius in North Hollywood on March 14 when he hit Gary Woodford, 55, a homeless man who had stepped into the street at Vineland Avenue and Erwin Street, officials said.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley filed the charge at a time when his office is also prosecuting a felony case against Alarcon, who is running for a seat in the state Assembly in November. Alarcon and his wife face perjury and voter fraud charges in a residency case that has been the subject of a preliminary hearing over the last week.

If convicted, Figueras faces up to a year in county jail. Arraignment is set for Sept. 17, and bail is set at $25,000.

In a prepared statement, Alarcon expressed his "deep condolences to the family and friends of Gary Woodford." He said he was following the case closely and taking "this situation" very seriously. "As an employer, I am consulting with the city's Personnel Department regarding taking the appropriate personnel action."

Alarcon didn't specify what actions that might include.

Prosecutors file misdemeanor charges when they have evidence that a motorist was distracted or not paying attention to the road at the time of the accident. Had they determined that Figueras had shown "gross negligence," a felony charge would have been filed.

Officials in Cooley's office initially declined to file a felony vehicular manslaughter charge in the Figueras case in June, saying they lacked evidence that he was driving at a high rate of speed or under the influence of intoxicants at the time of the crash. They referred the matter to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who handles misdemeanor cases, leaving open the possibility that charges could still be filed.

Weeks later, Trutanich sent the case back to Cooley. City lawyers said they did not want to pursue a criminal case while at the same time defending the city in a possible civil lawsuit from Woodford's family.

"Legally, we could probably keep them separate. We could prosecute a city employee," said William Carter, a top deputy for Trutanich. "However, there might be a perception that what we are doing on the criminal case might give us an advantage on the civil case, and we just don't think that's an appropriate position for us to be in."

Woodford died of multiple blunt force traumatic injuries, according to officials in the Los Angeles County coroner's office. He was found to be highly intoxicated at the time of the accident, with a 0.32 blood-alcohol level in his system, or four times the legal limit for drivers in California.

The fatal accident took place about 7:35 p.m. Figueras stayed on the scene after the incident, and investigators found no evidence that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson in an evaluation of the case two months ago.

Yochelson declined to file felony charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to show that Figueras had demonstrated gross negligence. "The investigation showed that excessive speed was not a factor in the collision," Yochelson wrote. "The victim crossed the intersection after dark using an unmarked crosswalk. According to [Figueras], he saw the victim and a companion entering the intersection but had insufficient time to stop."

Prosecutors wrote that there were conflicting witness statements about whether Figueras was attempting to change lanes and avoid hitting another car at the time his car struck Woodford. In addition, some of the witnesses were intoxicated at the time of the accident, according to the document filed by Cooley's office.

Alarcon defended his aide as a friend and someone "beloved by the community."

"Manny has served the people of the northeast San Fernando Valley for nearly 20 years with distinction, compassion and concern,'' he said. "Without further information, I view this as a tragic accident and I am deeply saddened for all involved."

Figueras could not be reached for comment.

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