Drivers taking over intersections or racing high-revving, tricked-out cars aren’t fazed by pandemic shutdown orders.
If anything, wide-open roads are an enticement.
Sideshows, as they’re called, are an ongoing hazard throughout Southern California. Some police officers have even noticed an uptick in street takeovers since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“Part of it is just what’s going on with the times, with COVID and lockdown,” said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Mark Guardado, supervisor of the San Fernando Valley bureau’s street racing task force. “They’re antsy and bored. I think that has a lot to do with it. Obviously, the weekends are busier, but with no one working and with school closed, they have the time.”
In the Valley, street takeovers happen about six to eight times a month, police say, and a team responds to reports of someone driving recklessly, whether it’s spinning doughnuts at intersections or sliding sideways through lanes with their tires peeling, nearly every day.
Those scenes are playing out across Southern California.
“It’s everywhere,” California Highway Patrol Sgt. Joe Zagorski said. “If you want to know where the hotspots are, check Google Earth and look for the intersections covered with burnout marks.”
A street takeover can attract hundreds of mostly young drivers and onlookers.
There are no barriers between cars teetering on the edge of their drivers’ control and those who come to watch them. There are no paramedics standing by in case a showboating motorist makes a mistake and sends more than a ton of performance-tuned parts and accessories into a crowd of people.
And now, at the height of a pandemic and record-shattering hospitalizations, emergency rooms don’t need extra traffic.
Daniel “Dano” Patten never even made it to a hospital after he was struck while documenting a street race on Christmas Day.
The Huntington Beach-based photographer, known among classic car buffs for his videos showcasing sanctioned events in and around Southern California, typically avoided underground events, friends and relatives said.
But when many legal venues hosting car shows were shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, he began turning to illegal meetups.
Patten, 66, was filming drag races at an annual street racing event held in the Carson area on Christmas day when a black Cadillac and a blue Pontiac collided with each other, then veered into a crowd of people.
Racers and spectators fled. Patten died at the scene of the crash.
Earlier this year, some 200 cars descended upon the Anaheim Plaza parking lot on Euclid Street in the early hours of Oct. 22, driving recklessly and performing doughnuts as cellphone video captured the maneuvers.
A car slid sideways into a woman who was standing nearby. The car’s back end clipped her, throwing her into the air before she fell to the ground. The woman, a spectator, was hospitalized and a driver was arrested for hitting her, then leaving the scene.
Afterward, the pack of cars in Anaheim scattered and headed toward Costa Mesa. Officers there were notified that the group was on its way. But before units could get to the reassembled sideshow, a truck apparently doing a doughnut rolled over, killing Sergio Marroquin Osorio, 23, of Los Angeles.
His cousin, Mynor Augusto Esquilvalle, 22, also from Los Angeles, was driving the pickup and arrested at the scene of the crash. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter in addition to reckless driving, and remained in custody as of Dec. 18.
Even before emergency rooms were overflowing, seeking treatment for an injury was discouraged in takeover circles, Zagorski said.
“People who get hurt at these won’t get taken to a hospital a lot of times, short of a possibly fatal injury, in order to avoid attracting scrutiny and potentially more enforcement,” he said.
California Highway Patrol records don’t always specify if street racing was a factor in a collision, so the exact number of casualties is unclear, Zagorski said. But officials call racers a menace on public roadways who contributed to the roughly 1,053 fatalities and over 84,468 injuries attributed to speeding by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in California each year between 2014 and 2018. During that period, between 26% and 30% of all deadly crashes in the state involved drivers who were going too fast.
Minutes later the street racers have found a new spot…the intersection of Manchester and San Pedro in South LA. The taskforce quickly moves in to breakup the takeover of the intersection. For innocent motorists & pedestrians, these takeovers are very dangerous. pic.twitter.com/ci32zeD6e5
— LAPD HQ (@LAPDHQ) December 22, 2020
Police look for social media posts showcasing gatherings of reckless drivers. But street racers carefully vet their accounts to keep their plans hidden from law enforcement, Zagorski said. Oftentimes, authorities won’t find out about sideshows until they are flooded with reports of cars filling up an intersection or racing up and down the street.
The police break up gatherings as quickly as they can, but they’re unlikely to catch everyone fleeing the scene.
Meanwhile, those who get away can easily use their phones to coordinate with one another and reconvene anywhere roads can take them.
The people who show off dangerous maneuvers at sideshows aren’t necessarily interested in racing, and not all street racers go to street takeovers, said CHP Capt. Dave Moeller, head of the agency’s Street Racing Task Force. But many do show up to the events, and wind up in impromptu drag races while headed to another spot.
Unfortunately, social media attention is a big motivating factor for those who engage in this illegal activity. After a video gets posted online of a vehicle doing burnouts, the taskforce is able to quickly locate it, cite the driver and impound the car. pic.twitter.com/p7bCf9mJEO
— LAPD HQ (@LAPDHQ) December 22, 2020
It’s often innocent bystanders or motorists, rather than reckless drivers or the crowds who egg them on, who suffer the consequences.
That’s what happened to Tujunga resident Karen Perdue’s niece, Michelle Littlefield, and the teen’s friends, Brian Lewendowski and Tony Miramontes.
The trio was on the way home from Disneyland, traveling north on the 5 Freeway just after midnight on Feb. 27, 2016, when the driver of a Dodge Challenger racing another motorist in southbound lanes slammed into the back of a big rig.
The sports car’s onboard computer registered a speed of 127 mph at the moment of impact. The crash sent the truck’s trailer up into the air and over the center divider. It landed upside-down on top of the car Littlefield and her friends were in.
Littlefield, 19, and Lewendowski,18, died at the scene. The driver of the big rig, then 52-year-old Scott Treadway, was also killed in the crash.
Miramontes, 21 at the time, fell into a coma and has remained unconscious as of Dec. 17, close to five years after the collision, Perdue said.
A fourth friend who was in the car with them was hospitalized with serious injuries, but has since recovered.
“When my brother found out it was his daughter in that vehicle, he couldn’t utter the words to his wife,” Perdue said. “Initially, it was just unreal to us. We were in shock.”
The driver of the Challenger that initiated the chain reaction crash survived. He was convicted of three counts of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced on April 12, 2019 to more than 22 years in prison.
The driver he was racing at the time of the crash still has not yet been identified.
Santa Ana has long been a haven for street racers. Its central location in Orange County, long stretches of road and industrial areas that empty at night make it a prime spot, Santa Ana police Commander Chuck Elms said.
Cirilo Adan, 74, was crossing the street on July 5 when he was struck by a Chevrolet Camaro driven by 19-year-old Bryan Lemus. The motorist remained at the scene of the crash and was arrested. On Thursday, Dec. 17, he pleaded guilty to one count of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and was scheduled to appear in court in February.
Orange County Register editor Gene Harbrecht died July 30 after a BMW that authorities say was racing an Infiniti down Bristol Street slammed into his Ford Ranger. Santa Ana resident Louie Robert Villa, 29, was behind the wheel of the BMW and charged with murder and DUI.
Prosecutors accused the other driver, Ricardo Navarro Tolento, 24, also of Santa Ana, of vehicular manslaughter and a hit-and-run collision. Both men have pleaded not guilty and are due to appear in court Jan. 12.
Changes to the law include more aggressive enforcement. Those caught racing will have their cars impounded for at least 30 days. Those drivers will be charged with reckless driving, an ordeal that can easily rack up thousands of dollars in fees, Elms said. Racers must also foot any repair bills associated with undoing illegal modifications to their rides.
If warranted, drivers may also be charged with vandalism for the black tire marks they burn into the ground at intersections and other public property damage.
In Ontario, police were able to identify four adults and a minor who were responsible for $16,000 in damages, allowing the city to pursue restitution.
Groups like the Motor Gospel Ministries in Granada Hills host events that allow drivers to do burnouts – the cars stay put while the rear tires spin and burn rubber – and other maneuvers in safer environments. The nonprofit also takes in young people referred by the court system for speed-related offenses.
Aaron Schwartzbart, the founder of Motor Gospel Ministries, aims to convince drivers to keep their high-velocity moves on a legal track. The non-profit offers alternative sentencing to young people convicted of speed-related offenses, and uses a driving simulator and other tools to demonstrate the split-second reaction times required to drive like a professional.
Schwartzbart also draws from his experience as a former stock car racer to explain the immense forces reckless drivers toy with and expose others to on the streets. The nonprofit then brings participants onto the racetrack.
“Everyone thinks they can drive until we actually put them on the track,” Schwartzbart said. “It’s very humbling when they’re all of a sudden just an obstacle to cars going around them at 90 through a hairpin.”
But it can be difficult to convince racers who view speed limits and police as the enemy to slow down, Schwartzbart said. “Back when I was driving 90 through rush hour in a 35 mph zone every day? Oh, I would have just laughed at you,” he said.
Law enforcement groups such as the recently formed Riverside County Sheriff’s Takeover Racing Enforcement Team (STREET) use social media to highlight the potential consequences of reckless driving.
There are more than 200 Instagram posts by STREET with pictures of vehicles being towed or that were pulled over, usually accompanied by a taunt. “We had front row seats for this roll,” said one post that showed a pickup and a patrol car. “The only thing these guys won was a ride in our backseat. #gonefor30daysx2”
Another post showed a car with windshield stickers that said “Crowd killer” with the caption, “No crowds at the impound lot to worry about #walkingtintothecrowdnow”.
Even becoming a parent, apparently, is no deterrent.
Once, Guardado said, “We arrested a father doing donuts, practicing with a 4-year-old in the car. He was, like, in the family car doing these donuts.”
Source: Orange County Register