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Survivor says he has no memory of crash that killed 3 Las Vegas teens

Updated September 30, 2019 - 8:29 pm

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Alexis Vargas, who survived a fiery car wreck last year that killed three other Las Vegas teens, testified Monday that he has no memory of the crash in Huntington Beach, California.

Letting out a long sigh on the witness stand, Vargas said, “I remember waking up. That’s it.”

Bani Duarte, who police say was drunk when she drove into the teens’ car, is being tried on murder charges.

As Vargas was sworn in Monday during Duarte’s trial, he raised his right hand, revealing the scars on the top of his hand from burns in the March 29, 2018, crash on the Pacific Coast Highway.

His friends Dylan Mack, 18; Brooke Hawley, 17; and Albert “A.J.” Rossi, 17, died at the scene. The Centennial High School students were visiting Huntington Beach for spring break.

Huntington Beach police officer Craig Moresco testified Monday that he found Vargas “in a state of shock.”

“He was repeatedly asking questions of me over and over again,” Moresco said. “Was I involved in a crash?”

Vargas was the last witness called Monday, which marked day six of Duarte’s jury trial in Orange County Superior Court.

Duarte, 29, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree murder and one count of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury. She faces 51 years to life in prison if convicted on all counts.

Vargas, 18, completed his studies at Centennial this year as a “star graduate” and at the time was slated to attend College of Southern Nevada to become a firefighter, according to his graduation announcement on the Clark County School District’s website. He declined to be interviewed after his testimony.

Before Vargas left the stand Monday, Orange County Deputy District Attorney Daniel Feldman asked him to identify his friends who were inside the car during the crash. Photos of Dylan, Brooke and A.J. displayed on three screens in the courtroom were met with sobs from the victims’ family members seated in the gallery.

Dylan’s mother, Renee Mack, shook in her seat, her hand cupped over her mouth. Her husband, Morgan, wrapped his left arm around her, tears coming down his cheeks.

“I felt sick,” Renee Mack later said outside the courtroom.

The deadly crash was reported just before 1:10 a.m. by three men who had been following Duarte after noticing her apparently reckless driving. The witnesses told police they watched Duarte slam into a curb when turning left onto the Pacific Coast Highway, minutes before the fatal crash.

Matthew Nixt, an Orange County senior forensic scientist, testified Monday that Duarte’s blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit about two hours after the crash.

Nixt was responsible for testing Duarte’s blood sample.

Her blood did not test positive for any drugs. But during his testimony, Nixt calculated that her blood alcohol content was likely between 0.30 and 0.31 percent — equivalent to a minimum of eight drinks in her system, he said — at the time of the crash. The legal limit for drivers in California is 0.08 percent.

Just then, a crying relative of A.J.’s said to himself, “I can’t handle it.”

While leaving the courthouse Monday, A.J.’s aunt, her mascara smeared from crying, said she had visited the crash site Sunday evening.

“It made me feel very ill. Me and Allie, we walked away,” she said of A.J.’s sister, Allie Rossi. The aunt declined to give her name.

Closing arguments and jury deliberations are expected to begin Tuesday.

Last week during opening statements, Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn, conceded that prosecutors could prove that his client was driving drunk when she caused the crash.

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

But, Glenn said, prosecutors will not be able to prove that her crimes amounted to murder.

Duarte, a receptionist and mother of four from San Clemente, California, has been jailed since her recapture in late April 2018 after investigators obtained more evidence and learned that she may have intended to flee the country to avoid prosecution.

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

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

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