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DUI suspect in Torrance pedestrian death was a drug counselor

A woman who works at a Torrance drug treatment center allegedly hit a pedestrian while driving drunk and continued to drive with the man embedded in her windshield.

November 27, 2012|By Kate Mather and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Angel Baldenegro, right, holds his daughter Melissa, 10, at the site of a memorial where his friend Phillip Moreno was hit by a motorist along Torrance Boulevard in Torrance on Saturday night. Bud Light beer bottles, a miniature Dodgers bat, a Kobe Bryant jersey, balloons and flowers lay at the memorial along with notes with Moreno’s nickname, “Chud.”
Angel Baldenegro, right, holds his daughter Melissa, 10, at the site of… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Sherri Wilkins wrote in a Myspace profile that "she used to be into drugs very heavy" and "with that came terrible choices."

Wilkins was trying to turn her life around: She wrote that she had been sober for 11 years, had reconnected with family and, according to state records, earned a certification in drug and alcohol counseling. She was working at a Torrance treatment center, helping others battle the addiction she tried to put behind her.

But over the weekend, Wilkins allegedly struck a pedestrian while driving drunk on Torrance Boulevard and kept driving for more than two miles with the man embedded in her windshield, according to police.

Torrance police arrested the 51-year-old on suspicion of driving under the influence and manslaughter. Wilkins told officers she "panicked" after the crash Saturday night and simply kept driving, said Sgt. Robert Watt.

Other motorists managed to stop Wilkins and grab her keys at 182nd Street and Crenshaw Boulevard, Watt said. Phillip Moreno, 31, of Torrance still had a pulse when officers arrived, but was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Wilkins had a blood-alcohol level more than double the legal 0.08% limit, Watt said. He said she told police she was on her way home from work at the time of the crash, but officials at the treatment center said it had only daytime meetings on Saturdays and was closed.

"There was absolutely nothing that gave us an indication that she was in a danger zone," said David Lisonbee of Twin Town Treatment Centers.

"We feel just absolutely appalled and horrified that this happened to both families," he added. "It's a horrible tragedy."

In 2010, Wilkins faced charges of driving under the influence, hit and run, and being under the influence of a controlled substance after she allegedly hit a power pole at the intersection of 182nd Street and Hawthorne — less than two miles from where Moreno was pulled from her windshield. Wilkins dragged the pole into the road, where a few other cars struck it and were damaged, said Patrick Sullivan, assistant city attorney for Torrance.

That case, however, was eventually dismissed. Sullivan said Wilkin's blood-alcohol level came back at zero and the levels of drugs were "so low" an expert couldn't testify there was an impairment. Wilkins reached a civil compromise with the other drivers.

Watt said it was "hard to say" if Moreno would have survived had Wilkins stopped earlier. The 18-year police veteran called the incident "mind-boggling."

"I've never seen this," Watt said. "It shows you how impaired she must have been."

A memorial for Moreno was crafted at the corner where he was struck. Bud Light beer bottles, a miniature Dodgers bat, a Kobe Bryant jersey, balloons and flowers lay at a nearby railroad signal, along with notes with Moreno's nickname, "Chud."

"Chud, you will be missed," one note read. "You will be in our hearts."

Standing nearby, Gilbert Chavez, 25, described his longtime friend as a "good hangout buddy" well-liked by many. Friends and family called Moreno "Chudweiser," Chavez said, because he liked to drink and have a good time.

"He was a good person," Chavez said. "He was definitely a jokester."

Tiffany Servio, 29, met Moreno at a Torrance park, where she said Moreno would play basketball almost every week. She often picked him to be on her team because he was tall, stocky and — "very athletic," she said.

Staring at the memorial site, Servio called the entire incident "crazy."

"This was very unexpected," she said.

A man who went to high school with Moreno's older brother, who gave his name only as Armando, said he couldn't believe the driver didn't stop.

"At least pull over," he said. "There's a gas station right there. Pull in and say you made a mistake, drop him off and flee if you want."

Court records showed Wilkins also had two convictions for burglary and petty theft in Los Angeles County, along with a conviction out of San Bernardino County for bringing alcohol or drugs into a prison.

In her Myspace profile, Wilkins said she was a "proud parent" who loved music, dogs, painting, cooking and the mountains. "I love life today," she wrote.

Under "Smoke / Drink," the profile read: "No / No."

kate.mather@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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