Bani Duarte sentenced to 51 years to life for drunken crash

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Bani Duarte sentenced to 51 years to life for drunken crash
Bani Duarte sentenced to 51 years to life for drunken crash

A San Clemente woman who drunkenly crashed into a stopped vehicle at a Huntington Beach intersection, killing three Las Vegas teenagers, was sentenced Thursday to 51 years-to-life in prison.

After hours of emotional testimony from family and friends of the victims, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary S. Paer sentenced Bani Marcela Duarte, 29, to the maximum punishment possible for a drunken crash that killed Brooke Hawley, 17, Albert “A.J.” Rossi, 17 and Dylan Mack, 18, and left a fourth teen seriously injured.

“To sum it up in one sentence, this is a tragedy of epic proportions,” Paer said. “This is the classic example of the hazards of drinking and driving and the legal consequences that follow … Hopefully this case will send a message out in the community that this behavior won’t be tolerated.”

A Santa Ana jury last year found Duarte guilty of second-degree murder for the 2018 crash. The judge noted that at the time of the fatal collision Duarte had a blood alcohol level of .30, nearly four times the legal limit for driving.

A tearful Duarte, 29, said she took full responsibility for the deaths of the three teens, but asked the judge for mercy and the opportunity to someday be with her four children again.

“I’m ashamed, remorseful and very regretful of the actions I made,” Duarte said to the family members of the teens. “I understand you hate me, you wish I was dead and you want me to suffer. I just want to say I’m truly sorry … It’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.”

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The high school students were visiting Orange County during spring break, and were driving from a beach party to their hotel when they were struck and killed. Family members described them as charismatic, popular, and promising students with bright futures ahead of them.

Hawley’s family said she was a driven, charismatic student and a gifted athlete who was being recruited to play soccer at the college level.

“We lost such a bright and beautiful soul,” Said Rhonda Hawley, Brooke’s mother. “In the process we lost ourselves and the possibility of who we were all going to be … she literally had everything to live for.”

Rossi’s father and sister said he was an avid athlete whose drew people in with his outgoing personality. Albert Rossi, AJ’s father and a Marine combat veteran, told the judge he suffered a heart attack after his son’s death.

“Vietnam was a living hell, but compared to this it was a walk in the park,” Rossi said.

“You will be able to see your children in jail, you will be able to touch them,” Rossi added, directing his comments at Duarte. “When I want to see my son I have to go to a cemetery thanks to you.”

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Morgan Mack, Dylan’s father, said he was full of energy, fun-loving, caring and strong. He was considering joining the Air Force and was hoping to eventually become a firefighter.

“His laugh lit up a room,” said Renee Mack, Dylan’s mother. “I can still hear it.

“He left on spring break and never made it home,” she said. “I stare at the front door all the time, waiting for him to walk through. But he never will.”

Duarte stared down at the attorney’s table before her as the victim’s families spoke, occasionally wiping her face with a tissue.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman acknowledged a handwritten letter one of Duarte’s children wrote the court on her behalf, describing it as “beyond gut wrenching.” But the prosecutor also noted the “gruesome manner” of the deaths and Duarte’s decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

“I don’t have any doubt that Ms. Duarte is regretful, that this has caused her and her family great pain and sorrow,” Feldman told the judge. “But those things can exist simultaneously to justice being served in this case. Quite frankly, I don’t envy the court at this moment.”

During the trial, Feldman described Duarte as consuming an “unfathomable amount of alcohol” at a Newport Beach bar, then mistakenly driving onto northbound Pacific Coast Highway despite intending to head south to her home in San Clemente.

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Several men in a nearby vehicle spotted Duarte hitting a curb while turning onto PCH, tried to convince her to stop, then followed after her and called 911.

Duarte sped up as she approached a red light at the PCH and Magnolia Street intersection and crashed into the back of a stopped Toyota Corolla at nearly 80 mph.

In an interview minutes after the crash captured on an officer’s body-worn camera, a heavily-inebriated, apparently confused and occasionally argumentative Duarte repeatedly requested a ride home, expressed frustration that the crash occurred on a rare night away from her children and asked, “Did somebody just die? What is going on?’”

During the trial, Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn, acknowledged Duarte drank an “excessive amount” of alcohol, drove and killed the teenagers. But Glenn argued that she should have faced a lesser charge of vehicular manslaughter rather than second-degree murder.

“Every time I met with this woman, she cried,” Glenn told the victims’ family members shortly before the judge announced the sentence. “You don’t have to give her forgiveness, just know that she knows what she did and is ready to be sentenced to life in prison.”

Duarte had previously been convicted for driving under the influence in San Clemente.

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