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Drunk street racer who killed OC Register editor sentenced to 15 years to life in prison

A street racer whose alcohol-fueled crash killed an Orange County Register editor was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison, then apologized and was embraced by the newsman’s widow before being led away.

Louie Robert Villa, 31, took responsibility for causing the July 30, 2020 death of Gene Harbrecht, telling a judge and Harbrecht’s family that he was “truly sorry” for “what I caused.”

After the hearing, Patt Harbrecht embraced a sobbing Villa, who tearfully thanked her. Minutes earlier, Villa had acknowledged to the court that he had made a lot of poor choices in his life, and understood the pain those who knew and loved Harbrecht are going through, but said he hoped they could one day “have forgiveness to me.”

“I do appreciate you are actually regretting what happened,” Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger told Villa. “But you have to understand it will not bring back Mr. Harbrecht.”

In early August, an Orange County Superior Court jury found Villa guilty of second-degree murder and several DUI-related charges. The jurors were unable to reach a consensus on whether Villa was taking part in a street race at the time.

On Friday, Villa admitted that he took part in a street race, after prosecutors indicated they would have otherwise sought a retrial on that specific charge.

A longtime editor of the Orange County Register, Harbrecht at the time of his death was serving as the national and international editor for the greater Southern California News Group. A music lover and devoted Angels baseball and USC football fan, Harbrecht was remembered by colleagues as a “newsman to his core” whose “veneer of amusing and engaging grumpiness” couldn’t mask a “heart of gold.”

Gene Harbrecht, a longtime editor for The Orange County Register and Southern California News Group, had a passion for Angels baseball and attended hundreds of regular season and spring training games. Harbrecht, 67, was killed in a crash Thursday, July 30, when his truck was hit by a speeding car, Santa Ana police said. (Courtesy of the Harbrecht family)

Brian Rokos, a Southern California News Group reporter who worked with Harbrecht for several years at the Orange County Register, described him as “a close friend, someone I counted on being a life-long friend.”

“Friends are not like plates or glasses. You break one of those and you can replace it,” Rokos said. “But you can’t replace a friend.”

Patt Harbrecht opted not to speak at the hearing but provided the judge with a letter.

Shortly before noon on July 30, 2020, Villa was speeding northbound on Bristol Street along with another driver, traveling nearly twice the speed limit with a blood-alcohol level double to triple the legal limit when he broadsided a pickup truck driven by Harbrecht, which was turning left from southbound Bristol to eastbound Santa Clara Avenue.

Bystanders pulled Harbrecht from the burning pickup and tried to aid him before he was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center, where he died.

Dashboard video recorded by another motorist showed Villa and the driver of another vehicle — Ricardo Navarro Tolento — abruptly speed off as soon as the traffic light at Bristol and 17th Street turned green, quickly outpacing surrounding traffic. Tolento is still awaiting trial for his role in the alleged street race turned fatal crash.

Villa was previously convicted of a DUI in 2012, and at the time was formally warned that if he continued to drink and drive and killed someone that he could be charged with murder. That led prosecutors to charge him with second-degree murder — rather than a lesser count of vehicular manslaughter — in connection with Harbrecht’s death.

During his trial, Villa’s defense attorney acknowledged he had been drinking and was likely speeding, but denied that he was racing another driver or that he was aware of the deadly danger of his actions.

The defense attorney told jurors that Villa’s view was partially blocked by another vehicle as he tried to avoid a collision with Tolento, adding that Villa attempted to brake when he saw Harbrecht’s pickup.

The prosecutor told jurors that there was no evidence that Villa hit his brakes, and countered that Villa was well aware of the dangers of impaired driving, having attended a Mother’s Against Drunk Driving meeting following his previous DUI conviction.

The jury ended up hanging 10 to 2 in favor of conviction regarding street racing, leading the judge to declare a mistrial on that charge.

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