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Transportation and Mobility

3 Years After A Driver Killed A Young Girl, Koreatown Residents Are Still Waiting For New Traffic Lights

A pedestrian carries two bags as she walks in a crosswalk at a busy intersection in Koreatown.
A pedestrian crosses the street at Olympic and Normandie.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)
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October has been dubbed “Walktober” in Los Angeles, as city officials mark Walk To School Day. The event is meant to celebrate and promote walking and biking to school and also raise awareness about safety. But for me, October is the month that 4-year-old Alessa Fajardo was walking to school in Koreatown and never made it to her classroom.

Alessa and her mother, Erica, were holding hands in a marked crosswalk when a driver turned left into their path and struck them. Erica survived. Alessa died from traumatic brain injuries.

The driver, later identified by police as Indira Marrero, was ultimately charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. She failed to appear in court in 2020 and a warrant remains out for her arrest.

Alessa’s death highlighted a series of failures: by the driver who killed her and — more significantly — by the city of L.A., which long knew of dangerous conditions at the intersection where she was killed, but did not add (some) safety improvements until after her death.

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As I reported last year, the intersection where Alessa and her mother were hit was particularly dangerous for children traveling to Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center, located on the northeast side of the intersection. That’s where Erica and Alessa were going that October morning.

The Crisis Of Traffic Violence

A framed photo of a young girl smiling and holding her hands under her chin.
A portrait of Alessa Fajardo.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

Alessa was one of at least 136 people killed by drivers while walking in L.A. in 2019. Historically, traffic violence has been the leading cause of death for U.S. children for decades. (In 2020, that grim statistic was overtaken by gun deaths, with traffic deaths in second place).

Pedestrian deaths continue to be a serious issue. City data show drivers killed 132 pedestrians in L.A. last year. And based on preliminary data through early October this year, that death toll is on track to be even higher for 2022.

Back on that October day when Alessa was killed, it was the second pedestrian fatality in L.A. on the same morning. Safety advocates protested outside City Hall, demanding leaders step up their efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate traffic deaths.

A Demand For Safety Goes Unmet

A group of concerned residents also used the LADOT’s public request portal to ask for protected left-turn signals at Olympic and Normandie.

Left-turn phasing, those signals with green arrows, effectively split the time that pedestrians have to cross an intersection from the time drivers have to turn left through crosswalks. LADOT says the safety upgrade results in “a significant reduction in conflicts among people driving and walking.”

Following Alessa’s death and the inundation of requests, LADOT conducted a traffic study at the intersection. In January 2020, officials concluded that left-turn phasing should be added in all directions at Olympic and Normandie to “promote the safe and orderly movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”

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LADOT officials said they would design and install the upgraded signals “upon identification of funding.”

But three years after Alessa was killed — and more than 30 months since LADOT recommended the signals be upgraded to make the intersection safer — the improvements have not yet been made.

Colin Sweeney, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed there is currently no left-turn phasing at the intersection, but declined to add more. He previously told me the base cost to upgrade one signal at an existing signaled intersection is $150,000, “with approximately $50K per additional direction.”

I asked LADOT for an update on the funding status for the new signals. Their response: “LADOT cannot comment on this intersection as it is a subject of ongoing litigation.”

That’s because Alessa’s parents, Jaime and Erica Fajardo, are suing the city.

A woman and a man, both in dark purple shirts, hold a picture of a little girl between them.
Erica and Jaime Fajardo hold a portrait of their daughter Alessa, who was killed in October 2019 while crossing an intersection in Koreatown.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

A wrongful death complaint was filed in L.A. County Superior Court in 2021, naming the city of L.A., the driver who killed Alessa, and the registered owner of the vehicle. The family’s attorneys say city officials were aware of the “dangerous condition” of Olympic and Normandie and “through a negligent or wrongful act or omission” allowed it to remain unsafe for parents and children, resulting in Erica and Alessa being hit — and Alessa being killed.

Speaking with me last year, Erica Fajardo summed up their goal with the lawsuit as “justice for our daughter and to save another life.”

“This could have been prevented if we had safer measures in place,” Jaime Fajardo told me in 2021. “We don't want this to happen again to any other parent who attends [Mariposa-Nabi] — or any school for that matter. No parents should have to bury their kid, ever.”

What City Emails Show

Initially, city staff did react promptly to news of Alessa’s death, according to emails obtained by LAist through a records request.

On Oct. 16, 2019, the same day Alessa was killed, a district staff member emailed LADOT officials, alerting them to the fatal crash and asking engineers to study the Olympic-Normandie intersection for safety improvements. An LADOT traffic engineer later responded that “a lot of requests came in” for left-turn phasing at Olympic and Normandie shortly after Alessa was killed.

A colorful mural depicts a garden scene with a little girl sitting in the grass and butterflies flying near her.
A mural on the wall of Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center in Koreatown pays tribute to Alessa Fajardo, who was killed by a driver while walking to school with her mother in Oct. 2019.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

Emails also indicate district staff visited Alessa’s school the same day of the collision. The principal at Mariposa-Nabi thanked staff for their support and asked for guidance on how to connect with LADOT for “possibly getting left-turning signals installed” at the intersection.

LADOT staff later confirmed to the school’s assistant principal that a study had been initiated to explore the feasibility of left-turn arrows. An LADOT engineer also shared that the department was also working with the Vision Zero team “to see if any identified enhancements can be eligible for rapid implementation.”

The assistant principal also inquired about getting a crossing guard for the intersection. That was later approved, though the crossing guard was not stationed in the same crosswalk where Alessa was killed.

By late January 2020, LADOT staff told CD 10 staff that the study was nearly finalized and included left-turn arrows in all directions at Olympic and Normandie. That’s where the emails stop, at least the ones provided to LAist through our records request.

On Jan. 30, 2020 LADOT released its report, with those included recommendations. But in the roughly 33 months since then, no changes have been made to the main traffic signals.

The city did repaint the crosswalks to make them more visible to drivers and retimed the signals to give pedestrians a head-start to cross. Following our reporting in Jan. 2021, LADOT installed rubber strips and plastic bollards in the intersection, which prompt drivers to make wider, slower left turns.

Children in masks cross a busy Koreatown intersection in a crosswalk. Plastic bollards shown on the left are meant to compel drivers to take slower, safer left turns.
Children in masks cross the busy intersection of Normandie and Olympic in Koreatown. The plastic bollards shown on the left are meant to compel drivers to take slower, safer left turns.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

How Hard Is It To Upgrade Traffic Signals?

That mostly depends on how much of a priority it is for the L.A. City Council member who represents the neighborhood.

LADOT studies and recommends safety improvements, but funding for those upgrades is typically secured by that district’s representative — in this case Koreatown, part of the city’s 10th District.

Then there’s the fact that CD 10 has… been through a lot recently; its residents have had three different representatives in as many years, with some gaps in representation.

Buckle up for this next part.

CD 10 Timeline
  • In October 2019, when Alessa was killed, the district was led by Herb Wesson, whose staff did initially respond quickly and request a safety study for the Koreatown intersection (more on that later).

  • Facing term limits, Wesson ran for a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in the 2020 election. Simultaneously, Mark Ridley-Thomas, who had held that county seat, ran for Wesson’s seat on the L.A. City Council.

  • Ridley-Thomas won his race, but Wesson lost to Holly Mitchell. Ridley-Thomas took the council seat in Dec. 2020 and represented CD 10 until October 2021, when he was suspended by his peers. That was in response to a federal indictment for his alleged involvement in a bribery scheme.

  • That put representation for CD 10’s residents in limbo for months. Then in February of this year, the council voted to appoint Herb Wesson back to his former council seat temporarily. But that decision faced legal challenges and Wesson was blocked from actually returning to conduct city business.

  • Fast forward to this September, when the City Council voted unanimously toappoint Heather Hutt to temporarily fill Ridley-Thomas’ seat, with voting power restored.

A Lack of Equity And Representation

For Jamie Penn, president of the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council, the lack of action at Olympic and Normandie highlights the historic lack of equity in the community and, more recently, the lack of representation by city government.

"For most of this term, we have not had the council member send representation consistently to our meetings," Penn said. "So it's been challenging to really function, let alone communicate, with what is supposed to be our representation."

Penn said that traffic violence is a major concern for Koreatown residents, but when it comes to communicating those concerns to the city, "we don't really see effort being made to make the streets safer." She added:

"We continue to advocate and we continue to make requests and unfortunately, we are underrepresented and our requests go unanswered... the city just seems to focus more on making sure that we comply than prioritizing people's actual safely."

Penn also noted that the city has been quick to remove "guerrilla traffic" installations, like the DIY crosswalks being painted across the city by one group of local safety activists.

"We will make requests and they go unanswered, and then we will see things like these DIY crosswalks pop up," Penn told me. "I, for the life of me, can't really see why the city isn't getting these things installed before the people have done it themselves. But then they will certainly take the time and resources to remove them."

Where Things Stand Now

City officials have declined to speak with LAist about their efforts to install the new signals, citing the current litigation. But while the exact circumstances might be hazy, it’s clear that district staff under Herb Wesson, and later under Mark Ridley-Thomas, did not identify funding for the recommended safety upgrades.

I reached out to Councilmember Heather Hutt’s office to find out if she or her staff are aware of this longtime request — and if she has the ability in her temporary role to secure funding to finally get new signals installed.

District spokesperson Ariana Drummond responded:

“Our office is currently being briefed by the Department of Transportation to figure out the best path forward. We are currently working to ensure that this intersection is similar to the other intersections in our district in the way that they are safe for all pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles.”

Drummond added that Hutt “has full authority and will work with LADOT for all traffic safety improvements in CD10 including [Olympic and Normandie].”

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