A jury in California has convicted a drunken driver of second-degree murder for killing a newspaper editor in what prosecutors have described as a street race with another driver.
Louie Robert Villa, 31 of Santa Ana, faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years to life for the July 30, 2020, death of 67-year-old Eugene “Gene” Harbrecht, a longtime editor at the Orange County Register who had gone out for lunch in his pickup truck when Villa slammed into him in a speeding BMW.
Prosecutors say Villa was racing an Infiniti driven by Ricardo Navarro Tolento when Harbrecht tried turning left at an intersection around 11:40 a.m. Bystanders pulled Harbrecht from his truck after it caught fire, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Street racing has become increasingly more high-profile in Southern California over the years, with authorities reporting a sharp increase in illegal races and street takeovers during the pandemic and new legislation seeking increased penalties.
In this case, Villa also had a previous conviction for drunken driving in 2012 that, under California law, involved him being warned that if he drives drunk again and someone is killed, he can be charged with murder.
Prosecutors did just that by bringing the second-degree murder charge. Tolento, now 26, had no previous drunken driving conviction so was charged with felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while engaging in a street race, as well as felony hit and run causing permanent injury or death and one count of street racing, a misdemeanor.
Jurors in Villa’s trial couldn’t decide on his street racing charge, with 10 favoring conviction by two wanting acquittal, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. But they convicted him on all other counts, including second-degree mid-term felony driving under the influence of alcohol causing great bodily injury, felony driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol level of greater than .08, and misdemeanor driving on a suspended or revoked license with a prior conviction.
Andre Mouchard, a longtime friend and colleague of Harbrecht, stated on Wednesday that Villa’s convictions, announced Tuesday night, have evoked mixed emotions, with no one wanting to feel revengeful.
“It is pissing me off that I feel sort of grimly satisfied that this asshat is going to do 15 to life,” said Mouchard, an assistant managing editor with Southern California News Group, which includes the Register. But, he said, “That is a fact: Gene is gone because of this guy.”
Still, he added, “nothing brings Gene back.”
Mouchard said the newsroom was shocked and horrified by Gene’s death, which many learned of after he didn’t call into the 1 p.m. newsroom meeting the day of the crash as scheduled. A couple editors saw photos of the wreckage online and thought they recognized Harbrecht’s truck.
“There isn’t a person here who is not paying attention to this and not remembering Gene,” Mouchard said, describing Harbrecht as “an honest, nice guy.” “Whether there’s a trial or not, we do remember him.”
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a press release that Villa “set in motion a fatal chain of events that resulted in a tragedy that never should have happened.”
“Gene Harbrecht didn’t have to die. He should still be here on this earth, enjoying Angels baseball, Ducks hockey, and living life with his wife, Patricia,” Spitzer said. “Gene’s fate was sealed the second those two speeding drivers accelerated off the limit line, leaving a loving wife without her husband and his friends and colleagues in mourning.”
Villa and Tolento are being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue of the OCDA’s homicide unit.
Harbrecht had worked at the Register since 1984. At the time of his death, he was the national and international news editor for the Southern California News Group, which includes the Register and 10 other newspapers.