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Trial starts for driver accused of street racing, DUI in crash that killed Orange County Register editor


A driver was street racing with a blood-alcohol content more than three times the legal limit when he caused the crash that killed a longtime Orange County Register editor two years ago, a prosecutor told jurors on Thursday, July 28.

Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue, in opening statements, said Louie Robert Villa, now 31, was speeding northbound on Bristol Street in Santa Ana while trying to catch up with another car when he slammed into a pickup truck driven by Gene Harbrecht, 67, who was making a left turn from southbound Bristol to eastbound Santa Clara Avenue about 11:40 a.m., on July 30, 2020.

Both Harbrecht and Villa were taken to UCI Medical Center, but Harbrecht died.

Harbrecht was a longtime editor of the Orange County Register, which is part of the Southern California News Group.

“He didn’t have to die,” Orue said. “If the defendant doesn’t drive at 11:40 a.m. at three times the legal limit, Gene is still here.”

A blood draw at UCI Medical Center about 45 minutes after the crash showed Villa’s blood-alcohol content at .26, Orue told the jury, later noting that Villa had a previous conviction for driving under the influence and had been warned about the dangers of drinking and driving.

The other driver, Ricardo Navarro Tolento, was arrested hours later with help from a witness who provided information about his car to police.

Villa faces charges of second-degree murder, driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, DUI with a blood alcohol level of .08% or more causing injury, and engaging in a speed contest. The DUI charges include enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury.

Tolento will face trial on vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run charges at a later date, Kimberly Edds, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said this week.

Villa and Tolento were stopped at a red light on Bristol at 17th Street, taking off when the light phased to green. A surveillance camera caught Tolento’s black Infiniti leading, with Villa trying to catch up in a borrowed silver BMW, Orue said.

The prosecutor said jurors would hear evidence that Tolento drove about 77 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone and that Villa was traveling between 81 and 91 mph at the time the silver BMW crashed into the front passenger side of Harbrecht’s truck.

The force of the crash sent the Ford Ranger “flying,” he said, adding that the crash was completely avoidable.

“Mr. Villa made some ridiculously bad choices that put himself, other members of the community, and Eugene Harbrecht’s life in peril,” Orue said.

A motorist who was behind Villa at the light captured the race and the crash on his vehicle’s dashcam.

Villa’s public defender, Stacy Kelly, said Villa drove in fear for his safety after Tolento swerved into the middle lane in front of him. She told jurors Villa’s view of the roadway ahead was blocked by Tolento’s black Infiniti until the last few seconds before the crash.

“That’s when he saw the Ford Ranger,” she said. “He slammed on the brakes and did everything he could to avoid the collision.”

She said Villa was headed to visit a former boss to ask about the possibility of being re-hired after he had been laid off. She said he had been drinking, but did not think his driving would be affected by alcohol and that he “expected to get to his destination safely,”

She said the tragedy was devastating, but told jurors it did not amount to murder.

Villa told investigators at the hospital that he had only had one drink at about 2:30 a.m., Orue said.

In arguing for second-degree murder, Orue told jurors Villa had a prior DUI conviction in 2012 and was warned that if he drove drunk again and killed someone, he could be charged with murder. Orue said Villa had also attended a Mother’s Against Drunk Driving meeting where he was warned a second time about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Three witnesses and two Santa Ana officers who responded to the crash testified Thursday afternoon.

One of the witnesses, Adam Bendig, said he was cut off by Villa as he approached Bristol and Seventeenth. He also caught the race and the crash on his dashcam and provided it to police.

Luis Gonzalez testified he was visiting his friend, Guillermo Velasquez, on the driveway of a home on Santa Clara near Bristol Street when they heard screeching and a loud bang. After seeing the aftermath of the collision, Gonzalez testified that he kicked and punched through the windshield of the pickup truck and dragged Harbrecht out and away from the crash.

Velasquez testified he retrieved two water hoses to try to douse flames after the truck had caught fire.

Villa left his car and sat down on the front lawn of a nearby home, they testified.

Tolento continued northbound following the crash, but was found a short distance away and arrested hours later.

The trial resumes at 10 a.m. Friday and is expected to wrap up by the middle of next week, the attorneys said. It wasn’t known if Villa would testify.

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