As Community Rallies '#JusticeForMoniqueMunoz,' Teen Could Be Charged With Manslaughter. What We Know
Editor's note: On April 8, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office confirmed to LAist that they've charged the driver for the death of Monique Muñoz. The reporting below is from mid-March and does not reflect that update, but does contain details about the fatal crash and the police investigation, as well as address speculation about how and when the driver was arrested.
A 17-year-old driver could be charged with vehicular manslaughter after police say he killed a 32-year-old woman in a traffic collision in West Los Angeles.
Monique Muñoz, of Culver City, died at the scene of the fatal crash, which happened shortly after 5 p.m. on Feb. 17 at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Overland Avenue, according to officials from the Los Angeles Police Department's West Traffic Bureau.
In the weeks since Muñoz was killed, there has been much speculation and rumors circulating on social media about the circumstances of the crash, the police investigation, and process of arresting and charging the teen driver, who is the son of a wealthy Beverly Hills entrepreneur.
I spoke with officials from the Los Angeles Police Department's West Traffic Bureau, which is investigating the crash. Here's what we know about what happened and where things stand now.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CRASH?
West Traffic officials explained what their investigators know at this point, based on the testimony of witnesses at the scene.
Muñoz was driving a silver Lexus west on Olympic and had nearly completed a left turn onto Overland Avenue.
The teen driver, who has not been identified by police due to his age, was driving a black Lamborghini SUV east on Olympic and entered the intersection "well in excess of the speed limit," West Bureau Traffic Captain Brian Wendling said, when he struck Muñoz's car.
Police officials believe Muñoz was killed almost instantly. The teen driver was transported to a local hospital with injuries.
"It was a very, very horrific crash," Wendling told me. "The cars were just completely decimated."
LAPD Detective James Dickson is supervising the crash investigation and described the scene as almost "complete devastation" and "among the worst aftermath of a traffic collision that I've seen."
A costly reminder for everyone to slow down.— LAPD West Traffic (@LAPDWestTraffic) February 18, 2021
Another Fatal Collision — bringing @LAPDWestTraffic to a total of 8 year to date.
Incident occurred at Olympic & Overland in @LAPDWestLA area. #Lapd#WestTraffic#TrafficSafety#TrafficAlert pic.twitter.com/u08LzB6tlN
HOW IS THE CRASH BEING INVESTIGATED?
In this case, investigators felt they had enough evidence for the DA to charge the driver with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. I asked Dickson how his team came to that conclusion. He said the charge was warranted based on the driver's "observed driving immediately prior to the collision," plus the fact that the 17-year-old had been cited recently "for similar driving activity."
There have been allegations that the teen had been racing with another vehicle at the time of the crash. LAPD officials I spoke to did not characterize this as a street race, but Dickson said witnesses reported the teen driver and someone in another car "had some kind of connection and were going at a high rate of speed."
Wendling said investigators have obtained video of the crash and are reviewing it.
There were allegations online that the teen was not licensed to drive. Dickson told me the teen had previously been cited twice for driving without a valid license, but investigators were getting documents from the DMV to verify if the driver had a provisional license or not.
Investigators will also reconstruct the conditions of the crash to help determine exactly how fast the teenager was driving. That process "requires a lot of math and measurements and laser-gridding and analysis of the damage to the vehicles," Dickson said.
WAS THE DRIVER ACTUALLY ARRESTED?
Muñoz's mother, Caroline Cardona, and community activists had been calling for the teen's arrest as recently as this week, but Dickson clarified that the arrest occurred on Feb. 23 -- six days after the crash. Because the teen was hospitalized and is a juvenile, he was processed differently than a typical arrest, Dickson explained.
"When someone is hospitalized, there's no urgency to place them under arrest because they have to be released from medical care for booking," he said. "So we had officers standing by at the hospital -- were he to be released -- to take him into custody. With a juvenile, it becomes a bit more convoluted because once they're taken into custody, there are certain time constraints with which we have to do things."
Once police determined they had enough evidence to charge him, they did what's called an "absentee booking," Dickson said, meaning the driver was fingerprinted and photographed at the hospital, then investigators took all that information back to a police facility for processing.
"I think some people were expecting us to arrest and 'perp walk' a minor out of a hospital in a gown in handcuffs," he said. "That's how they deem they got their pound of flesh or justice, and things don't work that way."
"I see posts on social media saying the family needs justice," Dickson said. "We're trying our best to give it to them."
Monique Muñoz's family has not yet responded to our requests for comment.
WILL THE DRIVER BE CHARGED?
That's up to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office, which prosecutes felony vehicular manslaughter cases (though not all vehicular manslaughter charges are pursued as felonies, as I explained earlier this year.)
A spokesperson from the DA's office provided this statement to LAist on Thursday:
"Monique's death is a giant loss for her family, our community and for all of us as Angelenos. This case was recently presented to our office and is under review. Juvenile court proceedings, records and case files are confidential pursuant to Welfare & Institutions Code section 827. As such, we are unable to provide further information at this time."
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE FOCUS ON THE DRIVER'S FATHER?
The father of the 17-year-old has been at the center of much of the social media discussion about Muñoz's death. While police and DA officials have not named the teen, members of the victim's family and people calling for justice in the case began posting photos and information about a man they said was his father.
On Wednesday, that man, James Khuri, posted an apology on Instagram. Khuri is a millionaire entrepreneur, according to Forbes, and his verified Instagram page includes several photos of him posing with Lamborghinis.
TRAFFIC VIOLENCE IN L.A.
In the first two months of this year (excluding Feb. 28), 45 people have been killed in traffic collisions on L.A. streets, according to preliminary LAPD data. That works out to an average of one person killed in traffic every 30 hours.
That figure is up from 30 traffic deaths in the same time period in 2020 (for context, that was a couple weeks before pandemic stay-at-home orders were issued locally).
Clarification: A previous version of this story said an official noted the teen had a valid driver's license. LAPD Det. James Dickson clarified that authorities still looking into his driver's license status.