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Rita Lujan’s unfinished business

Charges still not filed in crash that killed daughter

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MAGNA — Angel Garcia moves beautifully in the videotape. She's a tall girl with a dynamite smile, an easy grace and funky style that quiets a group watching the tape in this comfortable living room. The dance is captivating. Angel is a natural.

But watching Angel dance in the hip-hop performance filmed at Cyprus High School last year is a little harder for Rita Lujan than she thought it would be. It is the first time Lujan has seen a moving likeness of her daughter since the 19-year-old was killed in a brutal car crash Nov. 3; the vision makes the strong-willed woman cry.

Along with sadness for the loss of Angel, her youngest daughter — who earned a full-ride dance scholarship to Southern Utah University, who was engaged two weeks before she died, who bought her first car earlier that same November afternoon — Lujan has spent the past two months being furious.

And trying to get to the bottom of her daughter's death.

"I feel like I've had to defend my daughter through this whole thing," Lujan said. Angel's older sister, Sheryl, looks on. In an hourlong conversation, her eyes never dry.

"I've been saying to them, 'My God, give me something.' "

There has been no resolution to the crash that killed Angel Garcia, no charges filed against the man witnesses said ran a red light going 45 mph, demolishing Angel's new car and killing her instantly. The man prosecutors say tested positive for drugs in his system shortly after the accident.

After a week's worth of interviews, a search of court records and a review of police reports, it's still not clear what the holdup has been in settling this case. State and county officials had conflicting information about the whereabouts of toxicology reports prosecutors must screen to be able to press charges.

"We are definitely on Rita's side," said Kent Morgan, a spokesman for the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office. "We are very sensitive to what she is going through.

"We are investigating automobile homicide charges," Morgan said. "We do want to get this case filed."

"V/#1 [vehicle No. 1] failed to stop for an exhibited red light (eastbound), striking V/#2. V/#2 continued through the intersection traveling into a fence on the northwest corner of the intersection. Driver V/#2 DOA. . . . Blood taken from both involved. Analysis forthcoming. It appears V/#1 was uninsured. V/#2 was purchased earlier this date. . . . Investigation continuing." — Salt Lake County sheriff's report, Deputy M.S. Leary; Nov. 3, 2001, 11:03 p.m.

Today, the chain-link fence on the corner of 4000 South and 1500 West is still down as a result of the crash.

Garcia was hit and killed when a pickup truck driven by Jeffrey Don Ireland, 35, ran a red light near 4000 South and 1500 West about 11 p.m. on that Saturday, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Peggy Faulkner reported at the time.

Garcia was pronounced dead at the scene.

The night of the crash, Ireland was arrested and booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of automobile homicide and driving without insurance.

After the accident, Ireland would not agree to a blood draw, Faulkner said. A warrant was obtained and a blood sample was taken to test for drugs and alcohol.

Ireland was unavailable for comment. He is in currently in the Davis County Jail on a hold from Salt Lake County on another charge from a separate incident in December.

Back in November, he was held at the Salt Lake County Jail for four days. He was released from jail the same day Garcia's family held her funeral.

Ireland was not charged because of insufficient evidence, according to Morgan. Investigators got a toxicology report back and there were controlled substances in his blood, but they haven't received what Morgan called "quantifiable evidence."

Those close to law enforcement know that's the way investigations go in some cases. Just as a poppy seed muffin in a person's system can register as heroin in a toxicology report, it is not enough that someone's blood contains a controlled substance. It doesn't necessarily mean they are too impaired to drive, Morgan said.

More thorough "quantifiable" tests must be done to confirm a person's level of impairment. The Utah Health Department makes those determinations. So the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office and the county prosecutors have to wait.

"It was my dubious duty to awaken family members in the middle of the night to inform them that their daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, and/or friend had died. It is a heart-wrenching scene that need not, must not continue to happen! If only the impaired driver could see, firsthand, what I saw." — Alan Rindisbacher, chaplain, Salt Lake Sheriff's Office, in a Letter to the Editor written after notifying Angel Garcia's family about her death.

Lujan last saw her daughter earlier that Saturday. The girl called her mom and said she'd found the perfect car to buy. Trouble is, the young woman told Lujan, she needed a little more money for the down payment.

Garcia's fiance, Doyle Holt Jr., was going to help sign for the car.

"She was so shocked: Normally I would have said no. I still don't know why I said yes," Lujan said. "I told her to come on over. That I'd give her the money."

Garcia test drove the 1991 Honda Accord to her mother's door.

"She was so excited, so happy," Lujan said tearily. "It had a blue interior and she kept saying, 'Look how cute it is.' "

She talked with Garcia about her daughter's upcoming wedding. The couple thought they'd get married in Mexico but would fly Lujan to the southern country to be with them, and family and friends would be invited. The three talked about the party they would have back in Utah to celebrate the marriage. Then Angel Garcia had to go. She had to get the car back to the dealership, sign the papers and get ready for her evening.

"That was the last time I saw her," her mother said.

Angel was going to a wedding reception for a friend that night — another Cyprus High grad and former member of the Spinnakers Drill Team. After graduating and getting on with their lives last fall, everyone was going to get together: Tricia and Randi, Allisha, Trish, Cheryl and Kristin Robbins, who lived one door down and grew up with Angel.

After the reception, a few people gathered at the apartment of one of the girls. Garcia had told her fiance she wouldn't be out late that evening, so she said her goodbyes just before 11 p.m.

"It was so weird. Before she left the apartment, she went around and gave everyone a hug," Kristin Robbins said.

Then the young woman went to her car, pulled out of the complex and rolled to the deadly intersection at 4000 South and 1500 West.

At the time of the November crash, Faulkner said Ireland had a history of drug- and alcohol-related offenses, including DUI, dating back to 1986. He has spent time in both the county jail and Utah State Prison, she said.

A search of court records in Salt Lake County, West Valley City and Murray shows Ireland has had numerous dealings with law enforcement.

June 5, 1988 — Ireland is involved in an incident in which he is charged with assault against a police officer as well as DUI, aggravated assault and two counts of drug possession. All charges are dismissed as Ireland pleads guilty to the first charge of assaulting a police officer, according to Salt Lake County court records.

He is sentenced to one year in jail, but that sentence is suspended in lieu of 60 days in jail, work release and a promise to complete substance abuse treatment and stay out of trouble.

However, he violates probation in May 1989 and is ordered back to jail on the one-year sentence.

1993 to 1996 — Ireland is convicted of six charges in West Valley City. Court records show miscellaneous convictions for criminal trespass, intoxication, simple assault and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. In five cases, sentences are suspended, as are fines in lieu of probation. In one case, Ireland actually does 60 days in jail on a criminal trespassing conviction.

March 1996 — Ireland is charged with forgery, and a jury finds him guilty in February 1997. The following May he is sentenced to pay $5,000 and serve zero-to-five years in jail on the charge, but that sentence is suspended for 30 days in jail and three years on probation. Six months later, he violates probation and the zero-to-five-year sentence is reinstated.

July 1996 — A woman asks the court for a protective order against Ireland, which a judge signs in August.

September 1996 — Another woman files for a separate protective order, which a judge also signs in October.

November 1996 — Ireland is charged with joyriding with the intent to temporarily deprive an owner of his vehicle. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to zero-to-five years in jail, and once again a judge lessens the sentence to six months in jail and probation. As part of probation, Ireland agrees to several conditions, including one that he will remain in his mother's home during probation.

He violates probation and is ordered to complete the original zero-to-five-year sentence.

January 1997 — Ireland is charged with attempting to receive or transfer a stolen vehicle. He pleads guilty and 3rd District Court Judge Robert Hilder suspends a zero-to-five-year prison sentence in lieu of three years' probation.

As part of his probation agreement, Ireland agrees to consume no alcohol, to complete counseling and not to associate with anyone who uses or distributes illegal drugs.

He violates probation a few months later, and the prior zero-to-five-year sentence is reinstated.

Jack Ford, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, confirmed that Ireland was in and out of prison on these charges up until December 2000.

Dec. 6, 2001 One month after the crash in which Angel Garcia was killed, Ireland was arrested on first-degree aggravated robbery charges after an incident at 2200 South and 200 East.

He is scheduled to attend a preliminary hearing Jan. 22 before 3rd District Court Judge Ronald Neyring, according to court records.

On Friday, when a reporter makes repeated calls to the Utah Health Department and to the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office to find out why charges haven't been filed in the case, there are conflicting comments from state and county officials about the status of the case.

Morgan said his office was still waiting for information from the health department.

Rod Betit, director of the state's Health Department, said it had been mailed to the sheriff's office on Dec. 14.

After several phone calls, a detective said that the day before, Thursday, Jan. 17, the hard-copy analysis came to the sheriff's office.

"The comment that that information came to us Dec. 14 does not match up with what the officer is telling us," Morgan said.

Now the case can move forward, Morgan said late Friday. "We will screen it Tuesday. We still need expert testimony to determine what that amount of drugs means, but that should be all we need to proceed."

This may provide some relief to Rita Lujan, who is still haunted by the dance videotape she watched last week — and by other unfinished business, big and small.

"It was hard to see it," Lujan said a couple days later. "But it was good because it was what she loved."

The video is a reminder of another thing left undone. Lujan paid for the videotape, she remembers, but never got a copy of her own.

Her daughter's final resting spot isn't yet secure, either. Angel's body is in a temporary mausoleum at Wasatch Memorial Gardens on Highland Drive until she can be brought to her permanent resting place at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City. The new mausoleum section will not be finished until February.

If charges are filed, she says, that will be a relief. But she's not holding her breath.

For Rita Lujan, her daughter's case remains the most important unfinished business of all.


E-mail: lucy@desnews.com