By Richard Winton and Kate Mather
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — It was 3:45 a.m. Saturday and two LAPD officers were in pursuit of a Camaro speeding down Anaheim Street in Harbor City.
This chase wasn't broadcast live on TV, but it was recorded by a Los Angeles Police Department camera inside the patrol car as well as by surveillance cameras at businesses along the avenue.
At one point, the Camaro made a sharp U-turn. The police cruiser did the same. And that's when it was broadsided by a Chevy Tahoe that had been following the police car.
LAPD investigators on Thursday said the crash was no accident. Chief Charlie Beck said the driver of that SUV was a friend of the man being pursued. He intentionally rammed the SUV into the patrol cruiser to help that friend, Beck said.
The impact of the crash left one officer dead and a second seriously hurt. The LAPD officer was the third to die in a traffic-related incident since March.
The 20-year-old driver, Mynor Varela, has been charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty.
Investigators initially had little to work with aside from the crumpled vehicles, as the street was largely deserted and there were few witnesses.
An LAPD source said one of the first indications that this was more than an accident occurred as investigators looked at the position of the crashed vehicles Saturday morning.
They determined that the Tahoe swerved across the center strip of the roadway and crashed into the police car, several sources said. There were no signs the driver tried to brake, said sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.
One video from a building overlooking Anaheim Street shows the Camaro driving by at a high rate of speed, followed closely by the police cruiser. Seconds later, the Tahoe is seen speeding after the police car.
It's unclear where the video, initially obtained by KABC-TV, was shot and how soon after that the crash occurred.
The sources said video from the patrol car's dashboard camera was especially helpful in piecing together the case.
L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Thursday the combination of video and forensic evidence "worked rather quickly to help us."
Authorities allege Varela and the passenger in the SUV — identified as his 19-year-old brother, Bryan Varela — fled the scene and didn't stop to help the injured officers.
Officer Roberto Sanchez, 32, died later at a hospital. His partner, Officer Richard Medina, suffered a broken jaw.
The Varela brothers did not own the SUV, sources said, but detectives were able to quickly develop information linking them to the vehicle and the driver of the Camaro.
Mynor Varela was charged Wednesday with murder, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, assault on a peace officer and leaving the scene of the accident. He also faces a special circumstance of second-degree murder of a peace officer.
If convicted, prosecutors said, he faces up to life without parole in state prison. He remains in custody without bail.
Mynor Varela has no criminal record, his attorney said. Records with the California Department of Motor Vehicles showed he had a valid license with no reportable accidents, citations or suspensions.
Bryan Varela, a parolee, was arrested on a so-called flash incarceration, Beck said Thursday. He has not been charged with a crime. Court records showed he had at least one previous conviction for driving under the influence and evading police. Beck said he would remain in custody pending further investigation into the crash.
Detectives have also spoken to the driver of the Camaro, though Cmdr. Andrew Smith said Thursday that the driver had not been arrested.
Smith said Sanchez and Medina initially followed the car because of a traffic violation but did not elaborate.
Smith and others cautioned that the investigation was far from complete. One source said detectives are still sorting out several details, including how fast the vehicles were traveling and whether the patrol car's lights and sirens were on at the time of the crash. In the one video, the car's emergency lights are not on.
Investigators are "looking at everything possible," Smith said.
About a half-dozen family members were at Mynor Varela's arraignment on Wednesday but declined to speak to reporters.
His attorney, Regina Filippone, told reporters the family "feels terrible" that someone died in the crash, but they remained supportive of the 20-year-old.
"They're extremely upset," she said.
Sanchez, a six-year department veteran, was the third LAPD officer to die in a vehicle crash this year. In March, Officer Nicholas Lee was killed when an out-of-control truck crushed the patrol car he was driving. Last month, motorcycle Officer Chris Cortijo died from injuries he suffered while he was waiting at a red light and was hit from behind by a woman suspected of being under the influence of drugs.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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