Alessa Fajardo is 4 years old and a superstar. It says so on the badge her mother pins to her clothes as she gets ready for school.
It's a high honor for the preschooler, who's been chosen to lead her class that week at Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center in Koreatown.
It's Oct. 16, 2019, a Wednesday morning. Alessa's mom, Erica Fajardo, packs her daughter's lunch bag. It has a rainbow on it — Alessa says it's her "favorite color," since she can't decide among the others.
Before they leave, Alessa makes sure her dad, Jaime Fajardo, gets his goodbye kiss as he's getting ready for work. Her grandmother is home this morning, so she gets one, too. Since Jaime's mother is there, Erica leaves their 2-year-old daughter, Clarissa, at home with her — otherwise she'd be along for their short walk to Alessa's school.
Outside the apartment building, Erica kneels and tells Alessa she loves her, kissing her hand. Alessa smiles.
"I love you, too."
They walk north up Normandie toward the intersection with Olympic, Alessa in her Minnie Mouse sweater, carrying her little backpack. They're hand-in-hand. Erica never lets go. It's busy here. Lots of cars and people. The campus is directly across the street. They cross here every morning, and Erica always keeps Alessa on her right side — as far from oncoming traffic as possible.
When the traffic light and pedestrian signal turn green, Erica looks over her left shoulder to make sure no drivers are turning right off Normandie from behind her. Then she checks for drivers turning onto Olympic. All is clear.
They're about halfway across, still holding hands, when Alessa looks up at her mom and smiles.
That's when Erica hears it. People screaming, "Watch out!" The roar of a revving engine. As she turns to look, it's too late.
Seconds later, Erica is lying on the asphalt. She's been knocked out of the crosswalk. Her shoes are gone. She doesn't see Alessa.
Her only thought: Where is my daughter? Erica finds her a few yards away. "Everything is going to be fine," she tells her. But Alessa isn't breathing.
Fellow parents who witnessed the collision rush to their side. "Where's the baby?" they ask Erica. She tells them Clarissa is at home. She can't find her phone, so she borrows one to call Jaime, who runs to the scene.
By the time he gets there, EMTs have arrived and are giving CPR to Alessa. Jaime feels like he's having an out-of-body experience, looking down on it all, trying to make sense of it. He rides with Alessa to Children's Hospital while Erica is taken to another hospital nearby.
At Children's Hospital, a medical team is ready when Alessa arrives. Her skull is fractured and the trauma to her brain is too severe. They can't save her.
Jaime stays in the room with his daughter, holding her, not believing this is happening.
Erica is discharged from the other hospital and rushes to Children's. Jaime comes out to meet her in the waiting room.
He doesn't have to say anything. Erica can see it in his face.
LA's Traffic Violence
Alessa Fajardo was one of 134 people killed by drivers while walking L.A. streets in 2019. She was the second pedestrian killed in the city that October morning. The first victim was Efrain Espinoza, a father of five who was walking to catch his bus in West L.A. when a driver hit him and fled the scene. That driver was later arrested.
News of their deaths led a group of street safety advocates to protest outside City Hall, calling on the city to take meaningful action to save the lives of pedestrians and cyclists, who together represent roughly 60% of all fatal crash victims in L.A. in 2019, according to our analysis of preliminary city data.
"We have all the tools and solutions to solve this crisis," local cyclist Andrés Quinche told me at a protest in December 2019. "What we are lacking is the courage and the conviction from our city council members, our mayor, [and] the Department of Transportation to stand up and say that safety matters more than speed, and that someone's life is more valuable than a driver losing 10 seconds on their way to work."
Quinche is one of a growing number of Angelenos criticizing city leaders for not following through on the promise of Vision Zero, a safety initiative launched by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015. The program, adopted from a European safety philosophy, set an ambitious goal to eliminate all traffic deaths in Los Angeles by 2025. Vision Zero advocates believe such progress is possible because traffic deaths are a result of systemic flaws in street design and cultural priorities.
By fundamentally changing the approaches to managing speed and driver behavior, the initiative argues, cities can save lives and improve mobility for all road users. And there are signs of progress in some U.S. cities, including Seattle and New York City.
The story has been notably different in Los Angeles. Since the initiative was announced five years ago, traffic deaths in L.A. have risen rather than fallen. In 2015, 186 people were killed in collisions on city streets. In 2019, the combined death toll for pedestrians, cyclists and people killed in vehicles was 244 people, about a 31% jump. Pedestrian deaths rose more sharply, up about 65% over the same five-year span.
Another startling statistic from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation: Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 12 in the city.
'This Wasn't An Accident'
A 4-year-old girl was killed while walking to school with her mother. Who is responsible?
Let's take a step back for a moment to make one thing clear: when it comes to traffic violence, intention is separate from result. Of course, the typical driver who kills someone in a collision didn't wake up that morning planning to take a life.
That lack of malice in most traffic crashes is one reason we still see the term "accident" commonly used to describe traffic deaths. That's how LAPD officials and TV news reports framed Alessa's death. But that's not how Jaime and Erica see what happened to their daughter.
"This wasn't an accident," Erica told me. "This was a traffic violation."
For her family, calling what happened to Alessa an accident diminishes the tragedy of her death — and the failures of the driver who killed her. It also obscures the shortfalls of Vision Zero, through which the city — on paper at least — has taken the stance that traffic deaths are preventable and can be eliminated.
In the simplest sense, Alessa's parents blame the driver.
If the woman was looking where she was going while making that turn, how could she not have seen two human beings walking right in front of her?
"If she didn't see us, obviously she was looking at something else," Erica said. "How can you not see us?"
The investigation found that the driver was not licensed to operate a motor vehicle. Should that be considered a form of negligence?
How can you not see us?
The Fajardos also question why the city has still not made improvements at the intersection, even though the danger to pedestrians is well documented.
L.A.'s safety officials know precisely which streets and neighborhoods are the most dangerous and deadly for people walking. Before Alessa was killed, Olympic and Normandie had been listed for years on L.A.'s High-Injury Network — roadways that represent roughly 6% of L.A. streets, but account for 70% of crashes citywide in which a pedestrian is killed or severely injured.
That traffic violence disporportionately affects residents in disadvantaged communities, city data shows. According to L.A.'s Equity Index, between 55% and 75% of residents in the Fajardos' neighborhood are considered low-income, based on census data and 2018 federal poverty guidelines. The community is predominantly Latino.
In a Vision Zero safety study published in 2017, officials ranked all of L.A.'s neighborhoods based on the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or severely injured by drivers per mile of street. Koreatown ranked 4th.
And in 2013, before Alessa was even born, the city identified the 500 LAUSD schools "with the most need" for traffic safety improvements out of the district's more than 1,000 campuses. According to a fact sheet on its Safe Routes to School program, schools were prioritized by:
- the number of nearby collisions in which a driver hit a pedestrian or cyclist
- the number of students who live within a quarter-mile of campus
- the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals
- a lack of prior state or federal funding for street safety projects
Alessa's school, Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center, ranked 13th.
A slate of upgrades were proposed in 2018 to make the streets around the school safer, but that work has not been funded.
It wasn't until after Alessa was killed that LADOT repainted the crosswalk. Four months after Alessa's death, a crossing guard was approved at the intersection and "remained at Olympic and Normandie until schools were closed due to COVID-19," according to LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney.
The city also approved left-turn phasing (those green arrow signals) at the intersection, which gives pedestrians more protection by limiting the time drivers can turn left through a crosswalk. But upgraded traffic signals have not yet been added, and Sweeney told me "there is no estimate at this time of when installation will be completed as funding is yet to be identified."
Taking all of these factors into consideration, is it fair to call what happened to Alessa an accident? How are drivers held accountable when they kill someone on L.A.'s streets, and what is the city doing (or not doing) to protect Angelenos from traffic violence?
'She Took Something Very Precious From Us'
I first met Erica and Jaime at their home three months after their daughter was killed. Alessa's rainbow lunch bag was still in the kitchen. Her toys were still in the living room: an easel for art projects, her little plastic kitchen, her Peppa Pig playset.
Erica and Jaime sat with me at their kitchen table. Their younger daughter, Clarissa, was working on a nap in another room. They took turns checking in on her as they told me about Alessa.
She was bright. Assertive, bordering on sassy. A natural leader. Compassionate. Opinionated. Always looking out for her little sister. Perpetually outgoing. She loved school and shopping for clothes.
"She didn't see anything wrong with anybody... she just loved everything," Erica said. "I don't know what else to say other than she was perfect."
"Everywhere we went people looked at her and they would say, 'Oh, she looks just like you!'" Jaime said. "It just feels weird that I'm talking about my daughter now in the past tense."
Through their grief, both said little Clarissa was their North Star. Being able to play with her, read to her and sing to her "helps us keep going," Jaime said.
After Erica was hit by the driver, she experienced excruciating pain in her back and was hardly able to walk. She used a cane while her body healed. And because she was still nursing Clarissa at the time, she didn't take any painkillers.
"I know it's not fair for her for me to feel sorry about what happened," Erica said. "I want to give her the life that I wanted for Alessa. That's what keeps me going."
Jaime and Erica want to see the driver held accountable for her actions.
"She took something very precious from us," Jaime said. "She should definitely be behind bars for a long time to think about what she did."
Erica said she knows nothing will bring Alessa back, but hopes to feel a sense of justice, saying there should be "consequences for actions."
"It wasn't an animal that she ran over," she said. "It was a person."
Jeff Fischer, an LAPD traffic investigator, was assigned to Alessa's case.
Under California law, when a driver kills someone with their car, and it's determined they acted "without malice," they can be charged with vehicular manslaughter. If that happens, the death is not considered intentional from a legal standpoint, but it is still considered an unlawful killing and can be criminally prosecuted.
Before Fischer submitted his findings to county prosecutors in March, he spoke with me about what he'd determined.
The mother and daughter were crossing in the crosswalk with the walk signal, which is activated automatically. They were almost to the double-yellow line dividing traffic when a woman driving a Ford Explorer made a left turn from Normandie onto Olympic and hit them. The driver continued through the crosswalk and came to a stop on Olympic.
According to the L.A. County coroner's report, Alessa died from the blunt force trauma to her head when the driver struck her. Some eyewitnesses reported that she was also run over but Fischer said he could not confirm that. He concluded Alessa was struck by the front bumper, while Erica, being a little taller, took more impact from the hood, knocking her forward and out of the intersection.
Fischer obtained surveillance video from a nearby business which showed that the intersection of Normandie and Olympic was "pretty much clear" when the woman made her left turn and struck Alessa and Erica.
"She wasn't in a hurry trying to beat any cars," Fischer said. "She was just coming down the street [as] normal, making a left turn, just didn't see them."
Fischer drove the route at the same time of day the collision happened to simulate the conditions.
"I could clearly see the intersection," he said.
The woman who killed Alessa and injured Erica had her kids in the car at the time — she was driving them to a different school. Police and TV news reports emphasized that she remained at the scene, cooperated with investigators and was visibly distraught. Both authorities and reporters used the word "accident" to describe the crash, noting that she was not driving under the influence, according to police.
The driver has been identified by police, county D.A. and city attorney officials as Indira Marrero, of Los Angeles. She did not have a driver's license at the time of the crash. Marerro did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Based on his findings, Fischer concluded Marrero could be charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.
Fischer filed the case with the D.A.'s office in early March. It was referred to the city attorney's office, which handles misdemeanors. That's because even when a driver is found to be fully at fault — as is the case with the driver who killed Alessa — L.A. County prosecutors may decide not to pursue felony charges.
Marrero faces two charges, according to Rob Wilcox, a spokesperson for the city attorney's office: vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and driving without a license.
The maximum sentence for the first charge is a year in county jail, Wilcox said, and the maximum for the second is 180 days in county jail.
I reached out to both the D.A.'s office and the city attorney's office, seeking to understand their process for assessing these kinds of cases. They both declined to speak about the case, or discuss vehicular manslaughter in broad terms. A colleague and I also contacted a current and former county prosecutor in an effort to get some sense of how cases like these are viewed, but neither of them would speak on the record.
So I asked Fischer how this process works.
"They don't want to just see one violation, they want to see multiple violations, which will constitute a felony," he said of prosecutors. "Say if you have a witness as someone's crossing the street, and then prior to crossing the street, witnesses say, 'Yeah, this guy was speeding down the street, going in and out of traffic, ran a stop sign, he made a left turn and hit these people.' Now you're looking at felony stuff."
If a driver had been driving drunk, or fled the scene after hitting someone, those actions can bolster the prosecution's argument that a driver acted negligently.
Distracted driving is also an all-too-common factor in collisions. Jaime Fajardo hoped police would check the driver's phone records to see if she was using hers at the time. That wasn't done.
"In general, running a search warrant on a cell phone record is something we normally do not do that often," LAPD Captain Jonathan Pinto, who commands the department's South Bureau Traffic Division, told me.
"It's really difficult sometimes to prove distracted driving, unless we have an eyewitness or we can clearly see on video that the individual was texting or was distracted somehow," Pinto said, adding that collision investigators have to go "beyond just mere suspicion" when they write an affidavit seeking a search warrant on a driver's phone records.
I also asked Fischer if the fact that Marrero was unlicensed could be used to establish negligence. If she was not legally authorized to operate a motor vehicle, but did so anyway and killed a child as a result, could prosecutors argue that she acted negligently?
Not really, according to Fischer.
"Having no license is like an infraction," he said. "[Prosecutors] don't look at that."
I later recounted to Jaime and Erica his explanation of why the lack of a driver's license wasn't given more weight by prosecutors.
"I think that's total B.S.," Jaime said. "It is being negligent because you're getting behind the wheel of a car that you're not legally supposed to be driving... that is being negligent 100%."
So what's the typical outcome for these kinds of cases? Fischer explained:
"Most of the time when these things happen — and if there's no drugs involved, no alcohol involved, nothing very serious — most of the time they'll file charges on the other person, but they usually will offer probation. [As] long as they have a good record and nothing else going on, they're usually given three years probation."
Initially, Marrero was to be arraigned in early July, but due to the pandemic, her court date was moved to October, then pushed again to Nov. 25. She failed to appear and the judge issued a warrant for her arrest. As of this publication she had yet to be arrested, according to the city attorney's office.
'Is Anything Going To Be Different?'
The Fajardos want to see effective changes on streets in their neighborhood like lower speed limits and more left-turn arrows to protect pedestrians from drivers. Jaime said they both think about Clarissa and how to keep her safe as she gets older.
"She's growing up quickly and each day that passes by, she looks more like her sister," he said. "We just think about how [it's] going to be when it's our turn to drop her off to school. Is anything going to be different?"
Shortly after Alessa's death, Jaime contacted the office of now former L.A. City Councilmember Herb Wesson, who at the time represented the family's neighborhood. Jaime said he spoke with a couple field deputies from the district, who told him they would be working with LADOT to improve safety at the intersection.
"As of today, the only 'improvement' in that intersection has been a re-striping of the crosswalks from white to yellow," he told me.
Erica attempted to contact the city's Vision Zero team using the main email promoted on its website. She wrote to them in July, asking for a number of improvements at the intersection, like left-turn arrows and speed bumps to slow speeding drivers and protect children and parents at Mariposa-Nabi.
"I don't want anyone else to go through what [I] am going through right now," she wrote. "Parents from the school are concerned and would like to know what they can do for these changes to happen before their kids go back to school."
She has yet to hear back from anyone from L.A.'s Vision Zero team.
Erica said she knows those street changes could take a while, but the harder thing to change will be the sometimes-fatal decision by drivers to take their eyes off the road.
"They have their phone underneath the steering wheel, and they're looking down, pretending to be driving straight with their eyes straight ahead, but they're not looking at me. I have to stop for them," she said. "You're knowledgeable that you're driving, there's people around, vulnerable to a person in a car."
"It's a great weapon. It killed my daughter."
In June, the family experienced another terrifying incident on a walk.
They were headed to a park across the street from L.A. High School, crossing Lucerne Boulevard legally in a marked crosswalk. Jaime was pushing Clarissa in her stroller next to Erica, who was several months pregnant at the time.
"I'm hyper vigilant during this time, always watching to see if there's any cars coming by, any cars turning," Jaime recalled. "And sure enough, I see this car just starting to approach the intersection, and sure enough, she's looking down at her phone...I told my wife, 'babe, slow down because this person is not watching us.'"
Jaime said he yelled out to get the driver's attention, and she made a hard stop just shy of the crosswalk. The situation escalated from there.
Erica, who had been very reluctant to walk at all, said the trauma of losing Alessa several months earlier came flooding back. Jaime said he was "livid" and stood in the crosswalk, telling the driver she needed to pay attention. They tried to explain that they had lost their older daughter to a driver in a similar situation several months ago.
"This young lady just kept apologizing but she just wouldn't listen," Erica said.
Then, according to Jaime and Erica, the woman got out of her car and started yelling at them.
"In my head, I can't believe this is happening," Jaime said. "She's really cursing at us, because we're the ones that are about to get hit by her distracted driving. My wife and I were both telling her that we lost a daughter because of people like her that weren't paying attention. And it did not register with her. She did not care."
Erica took the stroller and moved with Clarissa onto the sidewalk, but Jaime says the driver briefly pushed and scratched him, then made a threat.
"This lady then yells at me and tells me if I don't get out of the way... she's going to run me over with her car," Jaime said. "I tell her, 'OK, do it.' And she goes back into her car, and she runs the car toward me. She actually hits me with her car and I have to put both of my hands on the hood to keep from being pushed back."
Jaime told Erica to call the police and the woman sped off, but they got the license plate and filed a police report.
LAPD Detective Gabriel Medina investigated the incident and confirmed that the woman scratched Jaime and "drove intentionally towards him," striking him with her car, though Jaime was not seriously injured.
The woman is now facing multiple misdemeanor charges, including assault with a deadly weapon (her car), simple battery, hit and run, and driving with a suspended license, according to city attorney spokesperson Rob Wilcox.
She faces a potentially longer sentence than the driver who killed Alessa.
'Our Family's Still Here'
On the first Saturday of October, nearly a year after her death, several dozen of Alessa's family and friends gathered in front of her school. LAPD officials from the West Bureau Division had organized a memorial to dedicate a plaque and plant a tree in her honor.
Alessa's teacher, Silene Corn, choked back tears as she talked about the student she said will "always be part of my class."
She told a story about the time a guest speaker had come to talk to the class about being cautious of strangers. "After she had finished her presentation," Corn recalled, "she asked the class one more time: 'So, if a stranger asked you for help, what would you say?' Everyone said 'no,' except for Alessa, [who] said, in the kindest voice, 'I will help!' Even after we explained everything again to her, she could not bring herself to say that she would not help a person in need of assistance."
Ms. Corn had given Alessa that superstar badge the day before she died. She knew how excited her student had been to be "a little teacher" for the rest of the week.
"There's a lot of guilt," Corn told me after the memorial. "She was coming to my class. She was coming to me."
Alessa's badge was battered and bloody from the crash. Erica and Jaime asked their daughter's teacher if they could get a new one, which she had made for them. Alessa was buried with it.
A few days after the ceremony, Erica and Jaime's son was born. They named him Alexis, in honor of Alessa.
I watched the family walk home after the memorial, crossing the same street where Alessa was taken from them. How can they bear this constant reminder of that day?
I asked them if they had talked about moving. At first, Erica said, she wanted to. But the more she thought about it, the more she resolved to stay.
"I put a thought in my head that this situation is not going to chase me elsewhere," she said. "Something has to be done here."
Erica holds to the advice she often gave Alessa: "Don't give up. If you feel like you can't do it, take a break, get up again, try again."
"I have that little voice — hers — in my head that's telling me that," Erica said. "That's why I'm still here. Our family's still here."