Anything can become a deadly weapon if a person tries hard enough. Here’s a cautionary tale for those of us who like to drive fast and make a quick buck.
The Southern California freeway system is a perfect example of the mathematical concept of chaos. The millions of cars and people going here and there randomly are channeled into an ordered system that appears to have some kind of grand design when viewed at a great distance. An accident in Riverside can cause backups hours later in Santa Ana, much like a butterfly flapping its wings in Sri Lanka causes a hurricane in Honduras. As an arithmetic construct and engineering achievement, the freeway system there is an amazing thing.
In the here-and-now, it is essential that cars involved in accidents on the freeway get out of the way as soon as possible to avoid a bottleneck of astronomical proportions.
This need to have the wreckage cleared has given rise to “tow bandits” or “bird-doggers.” These tow truck drivers illegally monitor police scanners and when an accident report comes in, the drivers will race to the scene.
Speed and time are of the essence because under California law, the first tow truck to arrive at the scene of an accident has the choice of which vehicle to tow. Safety, courtesy and common sense are thrown out the window because body shops pay bird-doggers a bounty for damaged cars.
Heriberto Contreras was a 21-year-old bird-dogger and the epitome of heedless indifference. As a result of his reckless disregard for anyone else, a child died and Contreras went to prison.
The warning signs were there; Contreras was cited over and over, and had his license suspended, but he continued to drive.
- May 17, 1990: Contreras, in a Mustang, was cited for driving 58 mph in a 35 mph zone and for driving on a revoked or suspended license.
- June 16, 1990: Contreras, in a Volkswagen, was cited by LAPD for ignoring a red light. The citing officer later testified that Contreras was approximately 15 seconds late for the light, had no driver’s license or proof of insurance.
- July 4, 1990: Contreras, in a tow truck, blew past a CHiPs officer at approximately 90 mph. In order to catch him, the officer was forced to travel 115 mph. She testifies that Contreras “was traveling in and out, using all lanes of travel.” After advising him that his driving was reckless, the officer cited him for speeding because traffic was light.
- September 11, 1990: Contreras, in a tow truck, was sighted by an LAPD helicopter pilot speeding through a residential area at 50 to 60 mph. Although the vehicle slowed when it approached stop signs, it never went less than 30 mph. Assuming the truck to be stolen, the pilot called in support from a cruiser, who tracked Contreras and witnessed him making numerous unsafe lane changes and following vehicles too closely. After Contreras stopped at an accident scene, he was cited for unsafe driving and failing to wear a seat belt. Again, the tow bandit was warned that he could have been cited for reckless driving.
- September 17, 1990: In Culver City, Contreras approached a red light in the right-turn-only lane. When the light changed, he shot out in front of the cars headed through the intersection, forcing an undercover Culver City detective to slam on his brakes to avoid an accident. The detective tracked Contreras as he drove between 90 and 100 mph, weaving in and out of the rush-hour traffic. Contreras was arrested for reckless driving when he stopped at the scene of an accident.
- September 17, 1990: Six hours after being arrested for reckless driving, Contreras was cited for an unsafe U-turn and not having a driver’s license in his posession. He was traveling through Inglewood behind a fire truck, “going from lane to lane” and traveling at 65 to 70 miles per hour. At the accident scene, the tow truck stopped in the southbound lanes, turned on its emergency lights, and made a U-turn crossing double yellow solid lines and caused the northbound traffic “to come to a sudden halt.”
- January 18, 1991: Contreras, in a tow truck, was cited for speeding. He was traveling 70 mph in a 35 mph zone.
- February 7, 1991: Contreras sped through a red light at 45 mph and was cited by LAPD for failing to stop and for driving with a suspended license.
Even if Contreras was a conscientious driver, in early February 1991, he was knowingly handling a deadly weapon and seemingly indifferent to the possibility that someone was going to get hurt.
On February 9, 1991, he drove his tow truck to Empire Auto Restoration where another admitted tow bandit drove it and found “You couldn’t go 30 miles an hour in the truck and stop. The truck didn’t have no [sic] brakes.” The brake pedal went all the way to the floorboard, the driver would later testify.
Contreras asked that the brakes on the truck be repaired, but the mechanics had not been able to get to it before a call came over the scanner about an accident. He was at the body shop when the call came in and Contreras, knowing that the brakes on the truck had not been repaired, drove it anyway.
At approximately noon on February 10, 1991, the report came in of an accident on Denker Avenue in Los Angeles. Contreras took his brakeless tow truck and headed down Denker, drag racing with another bird dogger at speeds between 60 and 70 mph. Where Denker crossed 55th Street, in a 25 mph zone, the two tow trucks hit a dip in the road and went airborne, but two witnesses there reported that neither slowed down. However, at 54th Street, the trucks encountered traffic stopped for a red light. Contreras’s truck rear-ended a car driven by Nadine Lashley, 71, who was driving home from Sunday school with 9-year-old LaLisa Steward and her brother, 13-year-old Jerry Houston Williams. The collision sent Lashley’s car airborne through the intersection and into a parked car.
Lashley and Steward were hospitalized with serious injuries. Jerry Williams was crushed to death.
After the accident, the driver of the other tow truck continued on to the original accident call, refusing to stop to help.
“I just never thought my boy would die before me,” Jerry’s mother, 31-year-old Phyllis Steward, in a tearful interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I asked if the paramedics couldn’t do nothing to save my baby–he didn’t do nothing to nobody–but they said he was dead at the scene.”
Jerry, who was the oldest of Steward’s five children, left behind a collection of sports trophies. One of them is a golden football statuette that notes his achievement as a running back in the 1990-91 Southwest Police Booster Community Youth League; another shows that his team in a summer basketball league won the 1989 championship.
Contreras was not seriously injured and left the accident scene before police arrived. He had to be called back to the scene by other tow truck drivers.
An accident reconstruction expert detailed a crash scene that contained 177.5 feet of skid marks and stated that had the brakes been in working order, there was a 75 percent chance that Contreras could have stopped in time.
Almost a year after the accident, Contreras was convicted after a trial of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.