An accused street racer whose alcohol-fueled crash killed an Orange County Register editor two years ago was convicted Tuesday of murder.
The jury was unable to reach a consensus on whether he was street racing at the time, leading the judge to declare a mistrial on that charge.
Villa at 11:40 a.m. on July 30, 2020 was accused of racing another driver northbound on Bristol Street at nearly twice the speed limit with a blood-alcohol level double to triple the legal limit when he broadsided a pickup truck driven by Gene Harbrecht, 67, that was turning left from southbound Bristol to eastbound Santa Clara Avenue, Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue told jurors during his closing arguments in a Santa Ana courtroom.
Several bystanders helped pull Harbrecht from his burning vehicle before he was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center, where he died.
Harbrecht was a longtime editor of the Orange County Register, who at the time of his death was serving as the national and international editor for the greater Southern California News Group. After Harbrecht’s death, his colleagues and friends remembered him as a “newsman to his core.”
The driver of the vehicle Villa was accused of racing — Ricardo Navarro Tolento — is facing vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run charges, but is expected to be tried separately at a later date. Dashboard video recorded by another motorist and shown during Villa’s trial showed the two vehicles speeding off as soon as a traffic light at Bristol and 17th Street turned green, quickly outpacing surrounding traffic until the fatal collision.
An earlier DUI conviction resulted in Villa in 2012 receiving a formal warning — known as a Watson Advisement — that if he drove drunk again and killed someone he could be charged with murder. As a result, prosecutors in 2020 charged him with second-degree murder — rather than a lesser charge of vehicular manslaughter — under an “implied malice” legal theory that he knew driving drunk was dangerous to human life but chose to do it anyway.
“It is his conduct that day – drinking alcohol, getting behind the wheel of a car, deciding to race with another car, going way too fast and doing his own ‘Fast and Furious’ on the roads of Santa Ana, coming to an intersection and broadsiding another vehicle – are you surprised when you put all those things together that someone was killed?” Orue asked jurors during his closing arguments.
Villa’s attorney, Stacy Kelly, acknowledged that Villa had been drinking and was likely speeding. But the defense attorney denied that Villa was racing another driver or that he was aware of the danger of his actions.
“Mr. Villa was wrong, he was wrong to drink, he was wrong to drive,” Kelly told jurors. “But this does not equate to murder.”
Kelly said Villa tried to avoid a collision with Tolento’s car, that his view was blocked by another vehicle and that he tried to brake when he saw Harbrecht’s pickup. That, the defense attorney said, showed Villa was not acting with “reckless disregard” for others as the prosecution had argued.
“The recognition of what is about to happen, the attempt to stop, that is recognition of regard for human life,” Kelly said. “(To find him guilty of murder) you would have to believe Mr. Villa had a cold heart, that he was callous, that he drove that day not caring if he hurt or killed someone.”
“It is just as reasonable to believe that Mr. Villa made a mistake,” the defense attorney added.
The prosecutor countered that he saw no evidence Villa was trying to avoid an accident with Tolento’s car, and pointed to Villa’s previous warnings about the dangers of drunk driving, which also included attending a Mother’s Against Drunk Driving meeting.
“When you get behind the wheel of a vehicle and drive very fast for almost half a mile and run into someone and kill them, that is not an accident,” Orue said. “Furthermore, when you are warned of the risks associated with such conduct, that is no longer an accident – it is a choice.”
Villa is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Oct. 7. He faces 15 years to life in prison.
Harbrecht’s death — as well as another fatal collision that took place the same month in which Santa Ana resident Cirilo Adan was struck by a suspected street racer while crossing a street — led to conversations among Santa Ana city leaders about potential crackdowns on street racing. That included Santa Ana officials considering, then rejecting, a proposed ordinance that would have made it illegal to be a spectator at street races.