BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Last November, a red Honda Civic clipped another vehicle on Stockdale Highway then careened into a traffic pole. The Civic’s driver and a passenger died, and another passenger suffered serious including a fractured lower back and broken pelvis.
One of the crash witnesses was Nathan Valencia, who drove his gray Infiniti G37 in a group of about 16 vehicles — including the Civic and clipped vehicle — that were part of an organized night of “cruising” through city streets.
Valencia didn’t hit the Civic or other vehicle, but he’s facing charges that could send him to prison for life, accused of initiating a street race with the Civic in which speeds may have topped 100 mph.
Valencia, 31, left the scene but came forward a month later after police issued a press release featuring a surveillance image of his car and asking for information on the driver. He told police he was speeding but not racing when the crash happened.
On Friday, a preliminary hearing began to determine whether Valencia will be ordered to trial on charges including two counts of second-degree murder. At the hearing’s conclusion, which will likely occur this week, Judge H.A. “Skip” Staley will rule on whether the prosecution has presented enough evidence for the case to proceed.
Prosecutor Tara Deal has called Bakersfield police officers to testify about crash scene evidence and witness statements saying the gray Infiniti and Honda Civic were racing.
The hearing was filled with street racing vernacular, with witnesses testifying to the signals given to initiate a race, and the frequency of races in the Bakersfield area. An officer testified multiple short races sometimes occur during a single cruise, participants showing off their car’s ability.
Valencia’s lawyer, Jared M. Thompson, attacked the reliability of crash witnesses, pointing out at least four witnesses admitted to initially lying to police. He said their statements aren’t reliable.
He also noted the witnesses and the occupants of the clipped vehicle — a gray Honda Civic — are friends. Thompson questioned whether the gray Civic was racing and the driver’s friends covered for him. The driver of the gray Civic has not been charged.
Shortly after midnight on Nov. 19, 2021, police were called to Stockdale Highway and Renfro Road where they found a red Honda Civic had hit a traffic pole. The car had major front-end damage, its engine pushed into the body of the vehicle.
During Friday’s hearing, Deal asked lead investigator Officer Aaron Brown what the damage indicated.
“Someone was going really fast,” the officer said.
The red Civic’s driver, Jose Beltran-Lopez, and a passenger, Carmen Vidal, suffered fatal injuries. A second passenger was badly injured.
That passenger, interviewed while recovering at home, told police the Infiniti came up beside them and challenged them to a race by “dropping gears” and revving the engine, Brown said. Other participants in the cruise told police the Infiniti and red Honda then began a “40 roll” — both vehicles holding their speed at 40 mph as they lined up.
Then, according to witnesses, Valencia gave the signal for the race to begin by honking his horn three times, Brown said. The surviving passenger of the red Civic said they were “flying” down the road. He estimated they hit speeds of 100 mph.
The posted speed limit is 55 mph.
Brown testified the red Civic didn’t have an event data recorder, which would have recorded the vehicle’s speed in the seconds before the crash.
The passenger said only the red Civic and Infiniti were racing, Brown said. Surveillance video captured the Infiniti shortly before the crash occurred, he said.
The driver of the gray Civic said he was driving with a group of vehicles as part of the cruise but went ahead of the group when he saw a race was about to begin, Brown said. The gray Civic’s driver told police he didn’t want to race and was only out for the drive.
The gray Civic moved ahead of the group and traveled in the slow lane, a storage lane to its right.
Brown testified the driver said he tried to get out of the way when he saw the red Civic and Infiniti rapidly approaching.
“Out of panic, he then attempted to get out of the way by merging to the right,” Brown said.
Tires screeched and the gray Civic was sideswiped near its back right area as the red Civic tried attempted to pass on the right, according to Brown’s testimony, then slammed into the pole.
The gray Civic sustained minor damage, Brown said, adding that its airbags didn’t go off so its event data recorder wasn’t activated. A recording of the gray Civic’s speed could not be obtained.
Brown tried to explain speed estimates he reached through a 170-foot skid mark left by the red Civic but Thompson repeatedly objected, saying the officer hadn’t established the method used to make his calculations. Brown testified he couldn’t explain the science behind the calculations.
On cross-examination, Thompson, Valencia’s attorney, noted the gray Civic’s driver and passenger initially lied to police. The man who identified himself as the passenger was actually driving at the time of the crash.
The man said he lied because he was driving on a suspended license and didn’t want the gray Civic impounded, Brown said. The gray Civic belongs to his girlfriend, who was the passenger.
Thompson asked whether it wasn’t true the man lied repeatedly over a period of weeks.
“I would agree with that,” Brown said.
Thompson then listed several other witnesses who Brown acknowledged were caught in lies.
He asked Brown if he could rely on any of their statements.
The lying is “definitely a red flag,” Brown said, but he testified he took what they said and checked to see if it could be corroborated by other evidence, such as surveillance video, physical evidence or other witnesses.
Thompson pressed Brown on whether it’s possible the gray Civic had been racing and the driver and his friends lied to protect him.
The rest of the group didn’t know Valencia, Thompson noted. But the gray Civic’s driver was part of their circle.
After repeatedly saying an affirmative answer would fly in the face of other evidence, Brown said, “As a black-and-white answer, yes,” the gray Civic could have been racing.
But, he added, he didn’t believe Thompson’s query was a black-and-white question.
Told by friends his vehicle was pictured in a Dec. 13 news release seeking information about the crash, Valencia came forward the same day and provided a statement.
He told police he had been driving next to the red Civic and admitted speeding at roughly 65 mph but denied initiating or otherwise being involved in a street race, according to court documents and Brown’s testimony.
Valencia saw the red Civic lose control and heard a “boom” and, looking back, saw smoke, according to the documents. He told Brown, who conducted the interview, that he parked around the corner.
Valencia and a witness went back to the crash scene in separate vehicles and drove past it multiple times but didn’t stop and speak with police, Brown said Valencia told him. The officer said Valencia doesn’t have a driver’s license and was afraid his Infiniti would be impounded.
As the interview continued, Brown used a ruse. He told Valencia they knew he was lying about the Infiniti’s speed because data from the red Honda showed it had been traveling 115 mph at the time of the crash.
Valencia became flustered and started sweating profusely, Brown testified. He had trouble speaking complete sentences. Brown said Valencia shook his head and again acknowledged speeding but said he couldn’t give an exact estimate of how fast he had been going.
Brown testified he told Valencia that one of the witnesses said Valencia had been losing the race by two car lengths. Valencia “chuckled,” the officer said, looked down and shook his head.
“Two car lengths on me, he was taking off on me?” Valencia said according to Brown.
Brown wrote in his report it appeared Valencia had been offended by the suggestion he was losing the race.
The preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume Thursday.