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Driver appeared ‘beyond intoxicated’ in crash that killed 3 Las Vegas teens

Updated September 26, 2019 - 9:09 am

SANTA ANA, Calif. Prosecutors can prove that Bani Duarte was driving drunk last year when she caused a fiery crash that killed three Las Vegas teens and injured a fourth, her lawyer conceded Wednesday.

“You’re going to hear that these four innocent people were sitting at a red light, obeying all traffic laws, when,” attorney Justin Glenn told jurors, snapping his fingers, “they were taken away from their families. That is not in question.”

But, Glenn said during his opening statement at Duarte’s trial, prosecutors will not be able to prove that her crimes amounted to murder.

Wednesday marked the first day of testimony in the trial, which is expected to last a week.

Duarte, 28, pleaded not guilty in August last year to three counts of second-degree murder and one count of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury.

Centennial High School students Dylan Mack, 18, Brooke Hawley, 17, and Albert “A.J.” Rossi, 17, were visiting Huntington Beach for spring break when they were killed in the March 29, 2018, crash on Pacific Coast Highway. A fourth student, Alexis Vargas, survived but was hospitalized with burns and a concussion.

The 911 call came in just before 1:10 a.m. from three men who had been following Duarte after noticing her apparent reckless driving. The witnesses told police they watched Duarte slam into a curb when turning left onto Pacific Coast Highway, minutes before the fatal crash.

The witnesses said they asked the suspect if she needed a ride after she exited her vehicle to check on the damage. But as the men were on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, Duarte got back into her vehicle and sped off.

‘Slurring, burping, staggering’

“They described her appearance as beyond intoxicated,” Orange County Deputy District Attorney Daniel Feldman said in his opening statement. “Slurring, burping, staggering.”

Evidence and testimony from three officers Wednesday revealed that after the initial crash, Duarte continued north on Pacific Coast Highway until she slammed into the back of the teens’ red Toyota Corolla, which was stopped at a red light. The car was forced through the intersection and into a pole before bursting into flames.

Feldman played a portion of the 911 call.

“She just hit a car. She just hit a car,” one of the men yelled. “One of the cars is on fire. One of the cars is on fire.”

Huntington Beach Police Department Sgt. Joshua Page, the lead investigator assigned to the case, testified that data retrieved from her vehicle showed that Duarte’s foot was still on the accelerator pedal at the time of the crash. She was traveling as fast as 78 mph a half-second before the crash and at no time in the moments leading up to the collision did she press on the brake pedal, he said.

“The defense concedes that they are going to be able to prove that she was under the influence,” Glenn, the defense attorney, told jurors. “It is the defense’s position that, when all is said and done, Mr. Feldman is going to come up short. He is not going to prove every element of murder.”

That’s because, he said, after Duarte was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor DUI in June 2016, officers failed to give her a formal warning, required in California, known as a Watson advisement.

The warning would have informed Duarte that if she went on to kill someone while driving under the influence, she would not be able to claim that she did not understand the consequences, including facing a second-degree murder charge.

‘Did someone just die?’

Meanwhile, the immediate aftermath of the crash was captured by Huntington Beach police officer Daniel Kim’s body camera.

Kim, who testified Wednesday, was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene.

At the beginning of the roughly hourlong video, Duarte, still sitting inside her vehicle and seemingly unaware of the severity of the crash, asked the officer, “Did someone just die? What happened?”

Investigators later determined that Duarte had just left a Newport Beach bar and was trying to get home when the crash happened.

For the duration of the video, Duarte, of San Clemente, California, sat still in her seat in the courtroom. The receptionist and mother of four has been in custody since her recapture in late April 2018 after investigators obtained more evidence and learned she was “possibly intending on fleeing the country to avoid prosecution.”

By then, she had been free on $100,000 bail for weeks.

The rest of the body camera footage played in court Wednesday showed another Huntington Beach police officer attempting to conduct a field sobriety test with Duarte, who at times was cooperative and at other times appeared to be combative and confused by the officer’s instructions and questions.

“I just want to go home. All you have to do is drop me off right there and that’s all,” Duarte, swaying back and forth, her words slurred, said to the officer at one point. “Can you do that?”

The video ended with Duarte being placed in the back of a patrol car.

“Hey, do me a favor, and stand up for me,” the officer said to Duarte, who, by that point, was sitting on the sidewalk.

“Why, am I going to jail?” she asked.

“Yes, you are,” the officer said. “You’re under arrest for DUI.”

As they handcuffed Duarte, she yelled, “But I’m not driving.”

Families of the victims declined to comment Wednesday, but Dylan’s mother, Renee Mack, previously said at a Las Vegas vigil for the teens that “Dylan did not die in vain. A.J. did not die in vain. And Brooke did not die in vain because there will be justice for them.”

The trial will resume Thursday morning. Judge Gary Paer, in an unusual move, has refused to allow cameras in the courtroom pending a verdict, citing concern for the defendant’s safety.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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