SANTA ANA (CBSLA) — Two alleged street racers were charged Monday in a fiery crash that killed a veteran newspaper editor near his Santa Ana home.
Louie Robert Villa, 29, of Santa Ana, was charged with second-degree murder, driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and driving with a blood alcohol content exceeding the legal limit of .08% causing bodily injury, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor counts of engaging in a speed contest and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to a prior DUI.
According to prosecutors, Villa has multiple DUI-related convictions for driving on a suspended or revoked license and had been advised that if he was involved in a deadly DUI crash, he could be charged with murder instead of manslaughter.
If convicted of second-degree murder, Villa faces at least 15 years to life in prison.
Ricardo Navarro Tolento, 24, of Santa Ana, was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run with permanent and serious injury, both felonies, and faces a sentencing enhancement of fleeing the scene of a vehicular manslaughter.
He was also charged with a misdemeanor count of engaging in a speed contest.
The men are accused in the death of 67-year-old Eugene Harbrecht after Villa’s BMW struck Harbrecht’s Ford pickup while Villa and Tolento were allegedly street racing.
The collision occurred just before 11:45 a.m. last Thursday at Bristol Street and Santa Clara Avenue, according to Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.
Police said the Harbrecht, was turning onto Santa Clara Avenue from Bristol Street when two racing cars came toward him at about 11:45 a.m.
“And when they got to this intersection, they struck the black truck, which was making a left turn onto Santa Clara Avenue, knocking it out of the intersection,” Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, with the Santa Ana Police Department, said. “They struck an electrical box, blew that off the sidewalk, and then the vehicle hits the fence and gets stuck in the fence.”
Navarro, who was driving an Infiniti, was allegedly racing with Villa. They were traveling north on Bristol approaching Santa Clara Avenue when the BMW struck Harbrecht’s Ford pickup truck as he was turning left onto Santa Clara, Bertagna said.
The pickup truck skidded 60 to 70 feet and caught fire, Bertagna said. Two area residents dashed over to help pull the victim out of the burning vehicle, Bertagna said.
After witnessing the violent crash that ended in flames, two Good Samaritans ran to pull Harbrecht out of his truck and put out the fire.
“The flames started going up and about, so at that point you just want to make sure that the guy doesn’t get engulfed in flames,” Luis Gonzalez said. “And we did everything we could to get him out.”
“The gentleman in the truck, we couldn’t see him until we broke the glass, and he was still unresponsive,” Guillermo Velazquez said. “Our biggest thing was just the flame, we noticed that the flame burst a little bit bigger as the car laid there, so my biggest concern was just getting the gentleman out of the vehicle.”
The pair successfully pulled Harbrecht out of the vehicle, but police said he died from his injuries after being taken to UC Irvine Medical Center.
Navarro fled the scene, but a witness got the license plate and police tracked him down hours later, police said.
The BMW was totaled and Villa was taken to an area hospital, where he was placed under arrest, Bertagna said.
Harbrecht worked at the Orange County Register since 1984 and was most recently employed as the national and international news editor for the Southern California News Group that encompasses the Register and 10 other newspapers.
Court records show Villa pleaded guilty in October 2018 to corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to DUI, and disobeying a domestic relations court order, all misdemeanors.
In May 2015, he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to DUI.