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In an instant, deadly car crash reshapes family forever

Three adult brothers, returning from a trip to see their father in Colorado, were killed, along with one brother's wife and a girl. Their van was rear-ended, allegedly by an 18-year-old drunk driver.

April 02, 2013|By Ruben Vives, Joseph Serna and Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Elijio Fernandez Jr. lost three younger brothers in the I-15 crash early Saturday. He lost another brother six years ago, and said he can't bear another funeral.
Elijio Fernandez Jr. lost three younger brothers in the I-15 crash early… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Three brothers and their families piled into a Chevy Astro van and made the long haul from East Los Angeles to Denver to say goodbye to a dying patriarch.

Their oldest brother, Elijio Fernandez Jr., 54, stayed behind. He didn't have it in him to go. He never forgave his dad for abandoning them as children.

Now the dull bitterness of a father's long-ago absence was entwined with wrenching fresh grief.

As the family returned on Interstate 15 through Nevada in the pre-dawn dark Saturday, the teenage driver of a Dodge Durango slammed into the back of their vehicle 30 miles south of Mesquite.

The van spun, flipped over and rolled off the highway, ejecting five people before landing amid the creosote and sage brush.

All three brothers — Genaro, Leonardo and Raudel — were killed, as was Belen, Raudel's wife of 33 years, and Angela Sandoval, a sparkling bit of a prankster at Eastmont Intermediate School in Montebello, dead at 13.

Her big brother, Eddie, and mother, Maria Cardenas, who was Leonardo's girlfriend and driving the van when it crashed, were taken to a hospital in critical condition. Eddie lost a leg in the accident, a relative said.

Their family can't believe a trip to comfort an ailing 79-year-old ended so catastrophically.

Elijio Fernandez Jr. has to force himself to speak or eat now. He had only coffee and water on Sunday. He came to the gray duplex on Northside Drive where his younger brothers Genaro, 41, and Leonardo, 45, lived side-by-side with their families. He had to summon the energy just to water their front lawn on Monday.

He had often visited to play with his nieces there. Now he seemed lost and drained. "I don't think we'll be able to move on until we can bury them."

The white calla lilies at the foot of the home were a reminder the brothers didn't make it back for Easter.

He lost another brother six years ago, and said he can't bear another funeral.

"I'm just barely feeling a little bit better and now we have to go through it again."

At one point, he stood by the iron fence with his head down, saying, "I lost my little brothers."

Family members trickled in and sobbed on the front lawn. The brothers' mother arrived from Mexico, hugging relatives and crying, "my little ones."

"I want to take them back [to be buried] so we can be close," she said.

Neighbors and friends stood in disbelief, and classmates of Angela laid down roses and votive candles.

"I'm going to miss that little girl," said Maria-Elena Ramirez, 59, on Monday. "She was always walking around with a smile on her face."

The brothers were working-class men born in Zacatecas, Mexico. Genaro was a welder who loved to host big barbecues at his house. Leonardo was a construction worker, landscaper and meat-cutter at Bob's Market in Whittier.

After news of the accident, Leonardo's four sons arrived wearing Dodger apparel because their dad and uncles loved the team.

"It's like a dream," said Leonardo Fernandez Jr., 25, the oldest son. "I don't even have any words to express myself."

He said he was saddened that the driver who rear-ended the family's van had allegedly been drinking. "People need to take it serious. You hear it all the time.... It can happen to anyone," he said.

That driver, Jean Ervin Soriano, 18, told authorities he had "too many" Budweisers before he hit the van about 3 a.m. Saturday. Nevada Highway Patrol officers said they found empty beer bottles in Soriano's Durango. He and his 23-year-old passenger suffered minor injuries and were released from the hospital.

Soriano, who appears to have family ties to the Mission Viejo area and Utah, was booked on suspicion of killing five people and seriously injuring two others while driving drunk, driving without a license, and failing to slow down. Prosecutors are awaiting the results of blood tests before filing charges. The teenager is scheduled to be arraigned April 10 in Clark County and is being held in lieu of $3.5-million bail.

Classmates of Angela on Monday night arranged a candlelight vigil, at which many spoke of her cheerful spirit.

"When she was absent, the school would be quiet," said Brenda Sandoval. She sobbed with others at the front of their school. "She was a really good friend."

A large pink banner that read "In Loving Memory of Angela S." hung above a group of votive candles. Photos of Angela and posters with written messages and poems were taped to the wall. One read: I cannot say, and will not say, she is dead. She is just away with a cheery smile and a wave of the hand.

Nearby, students were dropping change and folded dollars bills into a donation box for Angela's family.

A relative of the family said they were starting a fund called the Fernandez Family Foundation at Bank of America to help pay for the funerals.

Genaro Fernandez Jr., 22, can't believe how little time he got with his father.

He woke up from a nap about 1 p.m. Saturday and became worried that his dad hadn't called as promised. Cardenas' eldest son called and told him about the accident.

Genaro did not believe him, until one of Leonardo's sons called him with the same terrible news.

He was breathless. He spoke to his dad on Thursday, and had been happy to hear his grandfather's health had improved. Genaro was looking forward to seeing his dad on Easter.

The two had been estranged for many years — much like his dad and grandfather — but Genaro Jr. had reached out to reconnect with his father when he was 15. Since then, they had been "inseparable."

"That's when I started hanging out with him a lot, every day, every day, every day," he said. "I wish it could have been longer because each day I spent with him was great."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

joseph.serna@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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