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Man Gets 38 Years to Life for Deadly Police Pursuit Crash in Irvine

Man Gets 38 Years to Life for Deadly Police Pursuit Crash in Irvine

The Orange County Central Justice Center on September 18, 2020, in Santa Ana, Calif. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

City News Service

City News Service

12/16/2023

Updated: 12/16/2023

FULLERTON, Calif.—A 31-year-old man was sentenced Dec. 15 to more than 38 years to life in prison for a collision during a police pursuit that killed a local photographer in Irvine.
Pedro Pantoja Jr., 31, of Diamond Bar was convicted Aug. 23 of second- degree murder, driving under the influence of a drug causing injury, unlawful taking of a vehicle, and evading a peace officer-reckless driving, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and driving on a suspended or revoked driver’s license due to a previous DUI.
Jurors also found true a sentencing-enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury on a woman who was a passenger in his car. He was sentenced Friday to 38 years and four months to life in prison and was given credit for 1,117 days in custody.
The defendant’s attorney, Bobby Shui of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said a doctor who evaluated Mr. Pantoja described the defendant’s childhood as an “unbroken series of tragic circumstances.” Mr. Shui said in a sentencing brief that his client’s hardscrabble upbringing “included an absentee father, a mother with substance abuse problems, family homelessness and being sexually abused by an older family member.”
Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue said in court papers that Mr. Pantoja had “toxic levels of methamphetamine/amphetamine in his system at the time he was driving the stolen vehicle.”
It wasn’t even the first time Mr. Pantoja led police on a pursuit, Mr. Orue said. He led Riverside County sheriff’s deputies on a chase, Mr. Orue said.
Mr. Pantoja “has had legal issues since he was 21 years old, where he has consistently been in trouble with the law,” Mr. Orue said. “The defendant has a long criminal history dating back to 2013.”
Mr. Orue sought a sentence of 91 years to life in prison.
Jessica Medina, the mother of Mr. Pantoja’s two sons, 8 and 2 years old, wrote a letter to Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Leversen seeking mercy. She described how he stood by her when she had to have emergency brain surgery in 2013 that could have threatened to leave her blind and paralyzed.
Mr. Pantoja “stood there by my side willing to do whatever it took to be there for me,” she said. “Peter stepped up to be my caretaker. ... He helped me walk, shower and with all my needs.”
Mr. Pantoja “has struggled with meth addiction since I’ve known him,” she said. “Peter has always expressed to me that he feels ashamed for not being able to just quit and how he wishes he grew up in a different environment where he never tried meth at such a young age because he feels that he would have taken a different path in life, and I agree.”
She said he has been a “good father to our kids.” The defendant took a parenting class while in jail, she added.
The defendant’s mother, Sylvia, said in a letter to the judge that she had her first child when she was just 15 and that she was four months pregnant with Mr. Pantoja “when his father was sentenced to five years in prison for robbery.”
When his father got out of prison when Mr. Pantoja was 2 1/2 his dad “treated him cruelly and differently from his older brother Richard,” the defendant’s mother said. His father left the family a month after getting out of prison, she said.
Sylvia Pantoja said the breakup with the father of her children led her to her own methamphetamine addiction and ultimately “raids, fights, theft, abuse, drug use, shootings and even a shootout” before homelessness.
Mr. Pantoja’s father ended up back in prison when his son was 4, the defendant’s mother said.
The defendant fell behind in school and was held back and struggled with ADHD, his mother said.
In October, the judge heard from the family members of 62-year-old David Kawashima of Orange, who was killed in the collision with Mr. Pantoja.
Mr. Kawashima was the youngest of three siblings, his wife, Jacqueline McClure, said. He was a “good son,” who worked hard to keep his parents in their home until they died so they wouldn’t have to be placed in a nursing home, she said.
“David had a lot of friends he collected through his life,” she said. “And when he made friends, they were friends forever. ... I literally don’t know anyone who didn’t like him.”
Mr. Kawashima graduated from UCLA with a history degree and he had a passion for sports, music and photography. He held on to his vintage childhood collection of Hot Wheels, she added.
Mr. Kawashima was on his way to shoot an assignment for the city of Irvine on the day he died, she said. He was excited about the prospect of a loosening of the COVID-19 protocols allowing him to return to his photography more, she added.
City officials planted a memorial tree in front of City Hall in his honor, she said.
Mr. Kawashima would have been surprised about all the fuss done for him since he died because he was humble, she said.
“He doesn’t think he’s very special, just an ordinary guy,” she said.
Ms. McClure said when he didn’t return home as expected, she looked online and saw there was a collision on his route home and was growing concerned enough to call Tustin police, she said. Shortly after that, officials knocked on her door to deliver the terrible news, she said.
“I wanted to believe it was an accident,” she said of the crash. But the evidence that came out in trial convinced her it was worse than that.
“I now realize it’s a miracle David was the only one who was killed,” she said.
Ms. McClure’s daughter, Irene Kotulak, said Mr. Kawashima “was a very important part of my life.”
She described him as “kind hearted' with a ”gentle soul.”
“He loved animals and they loved him,” she said. “He took me to my first UCLA basketball game.”
The two shared an interest in history, she said.
“I sent David a Father’s Day card every year ... and he kept every single one,” she said.
Her stepfather also held on to a stuffed gorilla toy she gave him as a child after they visited the zoo together.
Mr. Pantoja has a prior felony conviction for leading police on a chase in 2017, and a prior DUI out of Riverside in 2013, Mr. Orue said previously.
According to prosecutors, Tustin police were called about 8:45 a.m. April 18, 2021, to the District at Tustin Legacy shopping center, because a driver appeared to be passed out at an In-N-Out drive-thru.
Prosecutors said Mr. Pantoja fled in a stolen car from Tustin police at a high rate of speed through a Costco gas station while other drivers were pumping gas. He also ran a red light before heading northbound in the southbound lanes of Jamboree Road.
Mr. Pantoja went about 300 yards before slamming head-on into a vehicle driven by Mr. Kawashima at Jamboree near Warner Avenue, Irvine police reported. Mr. Kawashima was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr. Pantoja was hospitalized after the crash. The woman in Mr. Pantoja’s car was also hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening.
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