A 31-year-old previously convicted drunk driver was found guilty Tuesday of second-degree murder for an alcohol-fueled crash that killed a veteran newspaper editor near his Santa Ana home two years ago.
Louie Robert Villa was also convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, and DUI with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08% causing injury, all felonies. Jurors, who deliberated for about an hour, found true sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury.
Before the trial began, Villa pleaded guilty to driving while his license was suspended or revoked.
Jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt on a misdemeanor count of engaging in a speed contest. Prosecutors will determine later whether to dismiss the misdemeanor.
Villa, who is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 7, faces 15 years to life in prison.
Villa was convicted of killing 67-year-old Eugene Harbrecht, an Orange County Register editor, at Bristol Street and Santa Clara Avenue.
Co-defendant Ricardo Tolento Navarro, 26, who allegedly was racing with Villa prior to the crash, is awaiting trial.
“A man took his final breath on this earth July 30, 2020, just a stone’s throw from here when he was involved in a fatal collision,” Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue said in his opening statement of the trial. “You’re going to learn it was completely avoidable.”
A witness, Adam Bendig, caught the alleged street race before the crash on dash-cam video, Orue said. Navarro was going an average of 77 mph in an Infiniti sedan in a 45 mph zone on Bristol from 17th Street, Orue alleged. Villa’s speed behind the wheel of a borrowed BMW was calculated by experts as 86 mph, according to the prosecutor.
When the collision occurred between the BMW and Harbrecht’s 2011 Ford Ranger pickup, a good Samaritan who saw or heard the explosive crash ran to the scene, Orue said.
One man ran from his home nearby and got a backyard hose to douse Harbrecht’s pickup “so it wouldn’t explode,” Orue said. Another neighbor pounded the vehicle’s window to help get Harbrecht out before the truck burst into flames, Orue said.
Villa “made some ridiculously bad choices” before the crash, Orue said.
Villa pleaded guilty in April 2012 to driving under the influence of alcohol, Orue said. At that time he was warned that if he got into another DUI collision that led to a death, he could face charges upgraded from manslaughter to murder.
As part of Villa’s sentence, he had to participate in a meeting with Mothers Against Drunk Driving members to hear more about the dangers of intoxicated driving, Orue said.
Following the 2020 crash, the first blood-draw from Villa at UC Irvine Medical Center, where Harbrecht was pronounced dead, showed the defendant’s blood-alcohol level at 0.19, Orue said. The second blood-draw showed it was about 0.25, more than three times the legal limit, Orue said. Four hours later it was at 0.15, nearly twice the limit, he added.
Harbrecht “did not have to die … if not for the adrenaline rush of speeding,” Orue said.
Villa’s attorney, Stacy Kelly of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said her client was driving to talk to a former boss about getting re- hired to his job.
Villa was “waiting at red light when a black Infiniti pulled up next to him,” Kelly said.
When the light turned green, Navarro veered in front of Villa, who “did everything he could to avoid that black Infiniti,” Kelly said.
“He slammed on his brakes and did everything he could to avoid” the crash, Kelly said.
She added that “No one disputes Mr. Harbrecht’s death was devastating … but it was not murder.”