SANTA ANA — A motorist with an extensive record of speeding tickets pleaded guilty Tuesday and was immediately sentenced to seven years in prison for a fatal crash in Irvine.
Toni Love Valenzuela, 33, pleaded guilty to a felony count of gross vehicular manslaughter. A jury convicted her Jan. 9 of a felony count of hit and run with permanent and serious injury, but deadlocked 9-3 for guilt on a second-degree murder charge and the gross vehicular manslaughter count.
As part of a plea deal, the second-degree murder charge was dismissed.
The defendant was convicted of killing 43-year-old Carmella Vann, a former Miss Tustin, in a July 3, 2018, crash.
Co-defendant Patrick Le, who pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter in March 2021, testified in the trial. Le was sentenced to four years in prison, but was given credit for 1,000 days in custody at the time. Valenzuela has been in custody since Nov. 18, 2019.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera characterized the case in her opening statement of the trial as “road rage” or a “contest of egos” between the co-defendants.
Valenzuela was behind the wheel of a Hyundai Veloster and Le was driving an Acura RL.
Shuttle bus driver Sigifriedo DeHaro noticed that the two drivers were revving their engines at a red light at Red Hill and Main Street, Madera said. Video from the bus was shown to the jurors, showing the two cars speeding away from the bus.
Moments later, surveillance video from a building picks the two racing cars up again, Madera said. Another driver, Kevin DeHaas, told investigators he was about to switch lanes when he noticed one of the cars gaining on him, so he jerked the wheel back, Madera said.
Le crossed over into oncoming traffic and Valenzuela attempted to “squeeze” between two cars, Madera said. Valenzuela was going about 60 to 63.5 mph in a 50 mph zone, Madera said.
Another building surveillance video shows the crash, as Le’s car slammed into the victim’s car and Valenzuela kept going, Madera said.
The crash was so loud people started to emerge from the building to see what happened, Madera said.
“Ms. Vann was an experienced driver, driving home from work and did nothing wrong,” Madera said.
Le was rushed to a nearby hospital and Vann was pronounced dead at the scene, Madera said.
DeHaas took a picture of Valenzuela’s car so police were later able to track the suspect down through the license plate, Madera said.
When questioned by police, “She lies and says she didn’t know there was any crash at all,” Madera said.
She claimed she was “absorbed” in a phone call at the time, Madera said. But phone records show she made a 17-minute call moments after the collision, Madera said.
Valenzuela has received 11 citations, including reckless driving in September 2014 for going 90 to 100 mph, Madera said. She has received nine speeding tickets, Madera said.
The defendant took three traffic school classes to resolve tickets, so she knew the dangers of speeding, Madera said.
Valenzuela’s attorney, June Woo Chung of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, called Le as a witness.
“I expect his side of the story will be the one he had all along — that he was somehow pushed over” into oncoming traffic, Chung said in his opening statement.
Le ultimately acknowledged “it was all ego, it was my lane,” Chung said.
“He’s fixated on beating Toni Valenzuela because he was pissed off she cut him off,” Chung said.
The two had never met before the collision, Chung said.
Chung acknowledged that his client was dishonest with police during questioning and has a lengthy record of traffic violations.
“Nine speeding tickets, I admit that’s a lot,” Chung said. “And there is evidence she lied. This is true. I’m not going to say you’re going to like or love Toni Valenzuela… But I am asking that you keep an open heart. You’re not here to punish her for her driving record or to punish her for her lies. At the end of this case I’m confident you will find her not guilty of murder or vehicular manslaughter.”
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