A beat-up white sedan with a dark junkyard hood and fenders cruises by slowly. Its occupants pretend to be leaving, but I suspect they’re checking me out.
Sure enough, they hang a U-turn and pull up alongside the open window of my out-of-place SUV. I swallow hard and tuck my camera out of sight. Two young guys in their early twenties stare at me. Then the passenger asks a question.
Briefly, I imagine my wife’s rollover-prone Chevy Blazer drag-racing their sporty import, which probably contains more nonstandard parts than just its mismatched hood and fenders.
“No, thanks,” I say. “I’m only here to watch.”
But it isn’t clear whether spectators are welcome, which is why I parked way back here in the first place. “You should be parked up there with the rest of us,” the passenger complains. “You’re creepin’ us out back here.”
“Up there” is about one hundred yards ahead, where fifteen or twenty cars are parked in a row along the side of Middle Harbor Road. Roughly twice that many people stand in front of the vehicles watching the proceedings. It’s Sunday, July 31, 2005 at 1:15 a.m., and I came to the Port of Oakland looking for a sideshow. I found a drag race instead.
The competitors, almost all imports, pair up across from the spectators before speeding down a road so wide it could have been designed with racing in mind. In the past ten minutes, from the safety of my car, I’ve witnessed four races, and watched at least one car spin doughnuts. Now I’m being commanded to join the boisterous crowd.
As I approach the others, I notice that all the cars are backed in. Because we all risk fines or even vehicle confiscation just for being here, everyone is prepared to flee suddenly. I pull in next to an import sedan. Then I get out, walk up to two teenagers, and mumble something nonthreatening about just being there to check it out.
Right then, a dark-colored sedan comes speeding back from the last race. It’s doing about 75 and is getting uncomfortably close to the spectators. I take a few steps backward.
Suddenly, there’s a thud. Before I know what’s happening, a body is airborne. It hurtles toward me and lands on the pavement ten yards from my feet.
While the local media has obsessed over the stunt-driving displays known as sideshows, it has tended to overlook street racing, which is both more widespread and altogether deadlier. Sideshows afflict East Oakland and are primarily a black phenomenon. Street races afflict the entire state and tend to attract everyone else.
Although street racing has been around for decades, its contemporary rise coincided with the June 2001 release of The Fast and the Furious. In spite of its largely unknown cast and improbable Hollywood plot, the movie spawned a popular film franchise and a nationwide drag-racing boom. Racing-related deaths surged, and Bay Area police soon grappled with a slick new outbreak of a familiar old problem. But officials thought they had it in check by 2003, and fatal racing accidents were on the decline — until last year.
That’s when eleven people died in high-speed horseplay on the streets of the Bay Area, not including two San Leandro brothers shot to death during a race at the port. The true toll was almost certainly higher, but then no agency tracks racing-related accidents or deaths, which are notoriously hard to identify. “How many of those calls that we get of high-speed aggressive drivers going down a freeway are actually two-way speed contests?” asked Sergeant Wayne Ziese of the California Highway Patrol. “It probably goes on every day. … It goes on every hour of every day.”
The busiest and deadliest season is summer, when the roads are dry, the nights are warm, and students are out of school or just back on campus. Three UC Berkeley grad students — Giulia Adesso, Benjamin Boussert, and Jason Choy — died last July after hitting a truck that jackknifed while trying to avoid some apparent freeway racers. Three teenage students from Fremont and Union City — Amanjot Thiara, Vibha Sharma, and Saprina Sidhu — were killed September 20 when their Camry collided with a tree while following friends at more than 80 miles per hour in a rain-slicked 35 mph zone.
Three other young adults died in separate racing accidents on one busy weekend in August. Tranquinillo Lopez of San Jose was thrown from his car and struck by a passing vehicle. Juan Pablo Moya of San Jose was hit by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy right after serving as a race flagman. And Annisha Reddy died shortly after her fiancé wrecked his Maxima in a Union City speed contest with an apparent stranger. Reddy was eight months pregnant.
Although racing is a crime, sometimes intertwined with the separate crime of auto theft, racers tend to view their behavior as not truly criminal — even though its illegality is glamorized in movies, videogames, and online message boards. “We get the same arguments about street racing we get about sideshows,” said Captain David A. Kozicki of the Oakland police. “You know, ‘These are people just having fun; they’re not hurting anybody; they just want to show off their car.’ And yet people end up dead.”
Blood is slowly pooling beneath the head of the young man crumpled on the pavement.
“Fuck! He’s dead,” someone blurts, possibly the driver of the sedan that just hit him. “Let’s get out of here.”
The offending vehicle speeds off. Other bystanders agree that the victim won’t live, and hurriedly run toward their cars.
A handful of us approach the body. Somebody calls to him, but he doesn’t respond. A young man kneels down and prepares to touch the victim, until someone else warns him not to. The body is motionless, except for occasional spasms.
“Who’s got a cell phone?” I ask. “Who’s got a cell phone?”
Car doors slam and engines rev. I cannot believe what I’m seeing. Most of the spectators are speeding away.
“Someone call 911,” I yell. “Who’s got a cell phone?”
As the crowd dwindles to just a few young men and perhaps a young woman, one of the guys near the victim pulls out his phone, and then hesitates.
“Call 911,” I urge him. “Call an ambulance.”
Cautiously, as if wary of being linked to the accident, he dials 911 and asks the dispatcher to send an ambulance. Remembering that I am a journalist, I get my camera and snap two photographs, until someone yells “No pictures” in a voice suggesting he means it. Fearing for the safety of my camera, I assure him that I photographed only the victim.
When the guy with the phone finishes talking to 911, he and his friends scramble to their car and drive away.
I am left alone with a dying stranger.
Last summer was the deadliest racing season in memory, and the trend has continued into 2006. Racing-related accidents have injured an innocent bike-riding sixth grader in San Ramon, killed someone racing at a Hayward cemetery, and this month claimed the lives of two members of the Tongan royal family and their driver.
At least part of the current boom may stem from the way racing is glorified online. At message boards hosted by magazines, retailers, and automotive Web sites, people can view racers’ stunts or upload videos of their own exploits. “One of the reasons that people street-race is to show off to their buddies,” CHP spokesman Robert Rickman said. Indeed, video cameras are common at races.
Aficionados don’t just learn about their passion online, but also befriend other drivers, and even arrange to meet and race. Participants use e-mail, cell phones, or instant messages to communicate outside the gaze of police. They typically meet at staging areas before dispatching scouts to remote office parks or industrial neighborhoods, or using teams of cars to hold back the traffic on freeways or rural roads. Dozens or even hundreds of vehicles will coalesce, race, and then scatter without observation.
Deputy District Attorney Ron Indran of San Joaquin County still recalls with awe a mammoth bust in Tracy that he witnessed in 2004. “It was a toned-down scenario of The Fast and the Furious,” he said. “You could literally see girls and young people congregating on the sidewalk. There were three or four hundred people. We sat there about an hour and within that hour you probably had about one hundred races.”
Crackdowns like that one — apparently the region’s largest — are rare for a variety of reasons. The biggest challenge authorities face is the knowledge that their own efforts can compound the problem. Given the high cost of being ticketed for watching or racing, busts almost always end in dangerous chases.
“It’s not that law enforcement doesn’t pay much attention to it, but … it takes a gargantuan effort to do a sting operation like that,” Indran said. “When law enforcement swoops in, all these people start running in one direction or another. So we have to be very careful not to create some kind of panic situation.”
Oakland police have encountered that panic on more than one occasion. Eighteen-year-old Martin Salgado of San Pablo lost his life at the port last year when his Honda Prelude struck a concrete barrier as he fled police.
“Everybody splits,” said Kozicki of the OPD. “Every single time we have a fatality down there, nobody sticks around.”
The young man bleeding to death at my feet appears to be in his early twenties. He has a crew cut and wears blue jeans and a pale blue shirt that’s bunched up in front of his face. The car’s impact wrenched his jeans down below his knees, exposing two layers of boxer shorts. His right side and arm are scraped and bloody. His breathing is labored and he seems unconscious.
I retrieve a towel from my car and drape it over his body. Then I start spewing platitudes. “Hang in there, man; an ambulance is coming,” I say. “Don’t give up.”
But I don’t really believe my own words. How can he possibly live? He was smacked by a speeding car and his body flew dozens of yards through the air. His sneakers were ripped right off his feet, and flew twice as far as he did.
As I wait for the ambulance, I survey the surroundings. There are no other signs of life; every car is gone except my Blazer. Even the vehicle that brought him here is gone, which means that either someone stole his car or his friends abandoned him. What kind of people care more for their cars than their friends?
I wonder why everyone fled. Yes, police could confiscate any vehicles that raced, and spectators could be ticketed and fined $500 — myself included. Still, how could they just leave like that?
The image of the young man’s airborne body keeps flashing in my mind. I don’t remember seeing him before the accident, and don’t know what he was doing when he was hit. But I did glimpse the car that hit him: a Honda Accord or comparable import. It fishtailed right before the accident. Where’s that ambulance?
The young man is silent, but every so often his body convulses. I keep spouting clichés about how he’s going to be okay, but by now the pool of blood is larger than his head. Where’s the damn ambulance? The wait is endless.
Saul Baltys lives to drag race, but doesn’t have much use for the people who do it on the streets of Oakland. He sees them gathering after midnight in the industrial neighborhood east of Coast Guard Island, but doesn’t follow to wherever they race.
He prefers competing on a professional drag strip. He’s a regular at Infineon Raceway’s Wednesday Night Drags, where everyday motorists can race their cars in a controlled, legal environment with rules, vehicle inspections, and a professional start clock. People like Saul believe that their sport’s death toll would be reduced if only there were more legal alternatives such as the one available at this Sonoma County track.
Drag racing at Infineon is typically safer than doing it on the streets, yet on the August day I met Saul there, the car directly ahead of him tore out of the gates and immediately lurched to the right and slammed into a wall. The driver, a man in his seventies named Doug, was shaken up, and racing was suspended while workers towed the wreck, cleaned up the glass, and scrubbed the track with a Zamboni-style street sweeper. Still, Saul doesn’t worry about accidents. “I’m more concerned with someone opening up their door into me in the parking lot,” the 23-year-old joked.
Saul has a lot invested in his car, a sleek black ’99 Camaro. So far, he has spent thousands in the pursuit of speed. He’s changed his car’s gear ratio and air flow, and added a new rear end, exhaust system, drive shaft, transmission cooler, torque arm, torque converter, and extra-large tires. To make room for the extra-large tires, he even shaved an inch off his fenders with a grinder and bashed in part of his trunk with a pneumatic chisel.
The mix of cars at Infineon includes everything from classic Chevelles, Chargers, and Mustangs to brand-new 350Zs, Corvettes, and BMWs. There are souped-up Gremlins, housewives racing minivans, and a fair smattering of imports. But domestic muscle cars like Saul’s Camaro rule; four-cylinder imports are in the minority.
Domestic owners tend to talk shit about the imports, which they deride as “rice rockets” or “rice burners” in reference to their Asian origins. The tension between domestics and imports is the biggest rivalry in street racing. “Mustang versus Camaro has been replaced by import versus domestic,” Saul said. “I like Camaros. I can’t think of anything you can get as cheap that’s got as much power.”
Saul eventually plans to increase his car’s horsepower further by adding either a supercharger or turbocharger. He’d prefer the latter, but because they cost $5,000 and are visible beneath the car, turbochargers are popular with the thieves who prey on tricked-out cars. “I know a lot of people who get stuff stolen,” he said.
But theft is just one of the risks Saul’s hobby exposes him to. For instance, although he said he generally tries to keep his car street legal, a few of his improvements don’t meet that standard. And cars like his get a lot of attention from police. “I’ve gotten pulled over before because technically the law says you can’t have tires that stick out past your fenders unless you have mud flaps,” he said. In fact, Saul said he’d been slapped with four or five tickets in the year prior to our interview — one for speeding, two for stop signs, and one or two for failing to wear seat belts.
“I try to cut back on that stuff, but I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It just seems like I screw up once and they just happen to be there when I do.”
The biggest dangers Saul faces are those associated with temptation. He’s been in several wrecks, the first of which happened the very week he bought his Camaro. “I was in the fast lane, going maybe like ninety miles per hour or something, and somebody pulled right in front of me and I swerved to get out of the way and I flew off the freeway into the grass,” he said. “When I was younger I used to be ridiculous,” he later noted. “I mean, if somebody did roll up next to me, I would definitely race them.”
But Saul said he’s learned his lesson — and having a legal place to race has helped. “When you’re driving something, you know, you just can’t help it; every once in a while, you want to step on the gas,” he said. “When you have a track to go to, you don’t feel like you got to do that all the time.”
When the rescue team arrives, I wave frantically and point to the young man. As they pull up, I check my watch. It’s only been about five minutes — an impressive response time, given the location. The fire department is soon followed by an ambulance and maybe half a dozen police cars. I see no evidence that anyone has intercepted the fleeing witnesses.
The medics begin attending to the young man, who is unconscious but still alive. After briefly caring for him there on the asphalt, they move him to the ambulance and speed off. I begin telling the officers what happened. I describe what I saw, explain that I took some photographs, and point out that 911 has the phone number of at least one other witness. I also stress that I am a journalist in the hope that this will keep me from being fined, which it does.
Over the next two hours, I repeat the same account for a seemingly endless series of officers. Four or five people ask the same basic questions. It doesn’t occur to me until later that they were probably checking to see whether my story changed. The police are generally cordial and thorough.
Other officers measure the crime scene. They note the likely point of impact, location of the body, and the place where the young man’s sneakers have come to rest. A policewoman photographs various items on the roadway: the sneakers, a car antenna, and a single windshield wiper that must have snapped off upon impact.
During one long wait, I pull out my own camera and head toward the windshield wiper. The evidence photographer brusquely instructs me to stop and go back where I was. When she walks my way a few minutes later, I ask her to describe the one piece of debris that’s too far away for me to identify. Her reply makes me wish I hadn’t asked.
It’s a piece of flesh.
Even unrepentant racers admit that youthful errors of judgment often compound their pastime’s already-sizable risks. “I see kids with fast cars who don’t even know what they’re doing,” said Chris, a 22-year-old who agreed to tell his story if his last name was not revealed. “When I was young, I got in trouble. I was stupid like all the young kids.”
Chris came from a family of muscle-car aficionados. But growing up in South San Francisco’s heavily Asian Westborough neighborhood, his own loyalties lay elsewhere. “The neighborhood I grew up in is really into the import scene,” he said. “The oldest kids on the block — we always wanted to go hang out with them, just watch them work on their cars. When I was fifteen years old, I used to drive with my neighbor. He said he’d take me to the street races.”
Soon, Chris was going just about every week, from San Francisco to Redwood City to Milpitas. But the races kept getting raided, and he kept getting tickets. So after a while, he stepped away from the scene.
That’s when he shifted his focus to racing on the freeway — in his case, Interstate 280, typically after two or three in the morning. “When I pull speeds that high,” he said, “you gotta make sure it’s really late and there’s no cars on the road.”
Where drag racers like Saul start from a dead stop and seldom exceed 85 or 90 miles per hour, freeway racers may begin their contest at that speed, and can exceed 140.
Chris said American cars are out of their league in such conditions. “A domestic car is really an awesome car for a quarter-mile run, but when you get into freeway racing — or extreme kinds of power — you’re looking at import cars,” he said. “I’m not out there to race other imports. I want the domestics. … At the track they dominate, but on the ride home they catch heat.”
As far as Chris is concerned, imports have two key advantages in street racing. For one, they maneuver better at high speeds. They also can be modified relatively easily and cheaply. The idea is to buy a lightweight model such as his Lexus IS 300 and then replace its parts with more-powerful components from the same automaker.
“My car is completely swappable in terms of parts with about six other cars,” he said. “The bottom end is swappable, the head is swappable, the brakes are swappable, a Lexus GS 430 rear end is swappable, a tranny from a Supra is swappable, a tranny from a ’97 SE 300 or a ’92 Supra is swappable. … I can go out and spend $3,000 on a set of Brembo brakes that just stop on a dime, or I can go and bolt up a set of Supra brakes, brand-new, reconditioned from the dealer, for like $600.”
Chris has purchased more than $6,000 worth of parts for his Lexus, and figures he’s saved another four grand by sticking to Lexus or Toyota components. But most of those parts sat in his garage for years because he lacked the one thing needed to make them work together. “The only thing I’m waiting on is the tuning,” he said.
Modern vehicles have complex computers that control their major systems, and although Chris is very comfortable doing most of his car’s mechanical work, he possesses neither the skills nor the tools to reprogram its computer brain. For that, he needed a tuner.
Tuners are the high priests of the import scene, people who can charge thousands of dollars to modify a car’s brain to work with high-performance components, and to optimize its systems for street or freeway racing. Chris finally located a trustworthy local technician, and after years of waiting he just picked up his newly tuned car.
But even with all its modifications, he wants his discreet four-door to resemble one straight off the lot. Chris doesn’t want to be confused with one of those kids who drives a tacky Honda CR-X or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. “A lot of the import scene is just bullshit — wings and spoilers,” he said. “We’re really into Japanese cars, but what we see out on the road are a lot of hoopties, a lot of garbage cars — all that Fast and Furious crap.”
Just like Saul, Chris is wary of the police — who have begun to realize that if they can’t catch racers in the act, at least they can bust them for illegally modifying their cars.
“None of this stuff I have is street legal,” he admitted. “They impound your motor, take it out, and you never get it back.”
Fear of impoundment seems to unite everyone who races.
When I wake up, I upload the photos I took earlier that morning. Six depict the races I saw, but none is sharp enough to positively ID any vehicles. Still, the photos show cars lining up for three distinct heats. One catches the two-tone car whose occupants invited me to race. At least three others capture a dark sedan lining up for the race that preceded the accident.
That must be the one that hit the kid.
As promised, I call police the next day to bring them copies of the photographs. On Tuesday, Daniel Tirapelli tells me to come on down. He is one of two officers who investigates hit-and-runs in Oakland. He meets me at the counter and we wander back to his desk.
Tirapelli tells me that the young man is in a coma in the intensive care unit of Highland Hospital. He wasn’t carrying ID, and no one knows his name. Nor has anyone called police to report him missing or fill in any other details. Hospital employees believe he’s fourteen.
Two days later, I call Tirapelli back. During a visit to the hospital, he ran into the boy’s parents, who speak only Spanish and finally tracked down their son three days after the accident. He is indeed fourteen, and because he’s a minor, Tirapelli can’t tell me his name. But he agrees to pass along a letter to his parents.
Early the next week, I go to Highland myself. At the intensive care unit, I explain that I’m there to visit a July 31 hit-and-run victim whose name I do not know. A series of attendants tells me they can’t help me. Finally, someone sends out a nurse who is familiar with the patient. Citing privacy laws, she says she can’t divulge any information. I explain that I was a witness, and beg her for any scrap of encouragement. Finally, she says the patient was transferred out of intensive care, but remains in serious condition. I thank her profusely for this slightly hopeful tidbit.
But I realize I may never learn anything more about the boy. His parents don’t respond to my letter, and the last I hear, he’s still in a coma. The investigation seems stalled.
Given the scope and sophistication of the racing problem, police admit they lack the tools to do much about it. “They’re using scanners to listen to our traffic,” Ziese of the CHP conceded. “By the time we start rolling in, they’re all making their way out of there right at the posted speed limit.”
Five years ago, Fremont took a different tack. Borrowing an approach first pioneered in the city of Ontario, it banned nonessential traffic in certain neighborhoods late at night. “Certain streets in industrial areas are closed to all traffic and pedestrians except those who are on the streets for business purposes,” said Lieutenant Mike Eads of the Fremont police. He credits the ordinance with putting a real dent in the city’s racing problem.
“The first weekend, I think we towed 64 cars and issued more than one hundred citations,” he said. “And these were not insignificant citations.” Fines are $250 for a first offense, $500 the second time around, and $1,000 for a third violation. Along with the added costs of towing, storage, and vehicle release, the fines made Fremont the Bay Area’s most unwelcome racing venue.
“The word got out: ‘Don’t go to Fremont,'” Eads said. “Every now and then you get a race in an industrial neighborhood, but it’s not like it was, where you’d get two or three hundred spectators and forty or fifty races.”
Yet despite Fremont’s success, neighboring cities haven’t caught on. Back in 2002, former Oakland Police Chief Richard Word considered blocking some streets during peak sideshow hours, but nothing came of the proposal. Oakland cops also worked with port officials to test the feasibility of closing some roads there, Kozicki said, but the port’s new homeland security barriers proved too unwieldy to be deployed each night.
As cities fail to stop racers, the state is urging them to target cars instead. Nine California cities, including Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, received grants from the Office of Traffic Safety to teach officers how to detect illegally modified cars. The funds also can be used to pay for officer overtime and racing education.
The idea came from San Diego, which used this approach to tame an epidemic of racing-related deaths and injuries in 2002. “Within one year, their deaths went from sixteen to four, and then it went down to two,” said Mike Morando, a spokesman for the Office of Traffic Safety. As in Fremont, the fines are considerable, running as high as $2,300.
Police are turning toward alternative methods because of the huge resources needed to attack racing head on. The huge Tracy bust illustrates the challenges. That operation was a joint undertaking of the Highway Patrol; the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office; the Tracy, Manteca, and Ripon police departments; and the Delta Regional Auto Theft Task Force. Undercover officers videotaped races for weeks in advance of the arrests, according to Rickman of the CHP. Officers then took the evidence to court, where a judge impounded all the clearly identifiable vehicles.
On the night of the arrests, dozens of officers from all the agencies swooped in on racers in a massive, coordinated effort. “It was like hitting a beehive with a stick,” Rickman said. “You saw people running around, backing up, driving all across the parking lot trying to find an escape, but there wasn’t any.”
Rickman said they stopped more than three hundred cars containing more than one thousand spectators. They arrested thirteen people and impounded more than sixty vehicles. Yet in spite of this apparent success, and the bust’s effectiveness as a deterrent to racing, the operation disappointed its organizers.
“What we were really hoping was that we could break into the Central Valley auto-theft industry,” said Indran, the prosecutor in charge of the task force. He had planned to personally prosecute all the auto-theft cases that emerged from the sting. But because the charges ultimately filed were mostly misdemeanor traffic infractions, he wasn’t involved.
And that’s the sad truth about street racing. In the hierarchy of law enforcement priorities, it seldom makes the cut.
Ten months after witnessing the accident, I follow up one last time. I call Captain Kozicki and tell him I’d like to learn about the investigation, and also how Oakland attempts to control street racing. He invites me to meet him at the Eastmont substation, ground zero in the city’s battle with sideshows.
The captain admits police struggle to bring anyone to justice in hit-run cases. And since 38 percent of Oakland’s thousands of annual accidents are hit-and-run, investigators such as Tirapelli have a very full plate.
“In the end, I don’t think they ever solved this case,” Kozicki explains as he peruses a copy of the police report. “I asked for the follow-up and they said there really wasn’t one because nothing came of this.
“This guy obviously had a hand in his own injury because he’s down there watching illegal street racing,” he adds. “Not that anything should happen to anybody, but you know, you’re never going to get participants to talk to you unless you have informants. We can’t get blood out of a turnip, and you can’t make somebody say something they don’t want to say.”
Oakland’s racing problem ebbs and flows, Kozicki notes. Up until last summer, things had been quiet for a while. That was an improvement over 2002, when the city staged an undercover sting to bust one of the crowds of racers that he says sometimes assemble at the port after leaving Infineon Raceway.
“It was crazy,” Kozicki recalls. “I mean, there was 120 cars out there, all geared up for street racing. I think it took us, like, eight police cars at one end to shut it off, and then they all turned around and started screaming back the other way, as fast as they could escape. Well, we had another twenty police cars down at the other end and we just closed them in — kind of like a hammer-anvil move. … That was the biggest one we’ve ever done. It was very labor-intensive.”
But except in these rare cases where the department can allocate dozens of officers, Kozicki admits it’s difficult for police to do much. “Street racing is a serious problem; yes, people are killed,” he says. “But the police are not going to — at least not in this city — engage in a pursuit of someone simply for street racing. I’m not saying we won’t do it at all, but in most cases. It’s dangerous for us, it’s dangerous for the people who are fleeing from us. Inevitably who gets killed is the innocent victim.”
As I prepare to leave the Eastmont substation, Kozicki gives me a copy of the police report containing my statement. It identifies the boy in the accident. The next day, I call his home to find out what happened to him. Much to my amazement, he comes to the phone himself. I ask if I can come by and talk, and he invites me over.
Guillermo Estrada lives on the south side of Richmond, in a poor but proud neighborhood of neat little houses. Tire tracks from doughnuts mark the intersection a block south of his home, and a neighbor is out working on his car when I arrive. Guillermo’s house is sea-green, with a white picket fence, a neat manicured yard, and a sleek Mitsubishi sports coupe in the driveway.
When I ring the doorbell, Guillermo answers. He is fresh-faced and handsome, with sad, knowing eyes and two missing teeth. His right hand shakes mine firmly. His left hand is tightly clasped, and folded in upon itself unnaturally.
We take a few minutes to get acquainted. I say how happy I am to talk to him, and explain that I witnessed his accident and waited with him for the ambulance. He tells me he was born in San Francisco, later lived in Oakland, and eventually moved to Richmond with his mother, sister, and two brothers.
I ask what he remembers about the accident.
“My friend said, ‘Oh, we’re going racing Saturday, you wanna come with us?'” Guillermo says. “I said, ‘Alright, let’s go,’ because I’m into cars too. … We all thought we were bad because of our brothers’ cars.”
So Guillermo went to the port with his friend and two other guys, including his friend’s older brother, who sometimes raced his car. It was Guillermo’s first time at a race, something his mother had warned him against, he says. Everyone was parked so they could leave quickly, he observed, and someone was videotaping the races from the roadside.
“My friend told me to give them the signal so they can start the race, and I went to go give the signal,” he recalls. “After that, I just woke up in the hospital.”
Now fifteen, the boy is somewhat sketchy on the extent of his injuries, and says he has no idea what his medical care cost. But he does know he was in a coma at Highland for about a month, and that after regaining consciousness he spent the next three and a half months at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. He was treated for three strokes, and injuries to his hand, hips, tendons, knee, shin, ankle, and head, including the missing teeth. He underwent several surgeries, and continues to receive Botox injections to relax the damaged muscles that have cost him the use of his left hand.
Still, for someone who endured what he endured, Guillermo is in amazing shape.
He thanks me for waiting with him. I tell him that’s not necessary. Then I ask if he wants to hear what happened afterward. He says yes, so I explain how everyone fled — including, obviously, his friends.
Guillermo pauses when he hears this, but otherwise takes the news calmly, which seems to be his style. “They told me that they stuck around and that they chased the guy leaving the car, and that they made that person run into a wall, and some crap like that,” he says.
I hand Guillermo a copy of the police report, and he reads what I told officers that morning, and what his friend later said about the accident. “His mother has a white Dodge van, but we weren’t in a white Dodge van — we were in a red Camry,” he says in disbelief. “They just made up a different story, I guess.”
I ask Guillermo if he’s mad at his friends.
“Yeah, kinda,” he says, although there’s no anger in his voice. “Now you tell me this — that everybody just took off. They said they were still there. And I don’t believe that crap, ’cause I know they know who did it. “
Through two entirely different journeys, Guillermo and I have arrived at the same conclusion. Teenagers and journalists tend to be attracted to risky behavior, and both of us went to the port that morning without preconceived notions of what we would find. But given what happened, it’s hard for either of us to escape the sad conclusion that some people value a fast car more than a human life.