Crime and Courts

‘He liked to go fast:' Trial begins in DUI crash that killed 2 at Torrey Pines State Beach

Once on southbound Interstate 5 heading toward San Diego, Christopher Ray Schmittel drove up to 140 mph, one of the surviving passengers said

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The trial began Tuesday for Christopher Ray Schmittel, a young man who drove under the influence and crashed his car near Torrey Pines State Beach, killing two of his passengers and seriously injuring two others.

Schmittel, now 21, of Moreno Valley, is accused of crashing a 2020 Subaru WRX through a metal guardrail on Torrey Pines Road just before 11 p.m. on April 25, 2022, causing the deaths of Joshua Manzanares and Johnny Punzalan, both 19. The victims were thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene, according to police.

Deputy District Attorney Hailey Williams said the car reached speeds of over 120 mph just before the crash and Schmittel was driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, Xanax and, what the men believed were, psychedelic mushrooms.

One of the surviving passengers, Aaron McCray, was on the witness stand on Tuesday. He claimed that he and the other men left the Riverside County city of Wildomar earlier that day with Schmittel behind the wheel. He shared that drinking, doing drugs and driving recklessly was something the group would do when they were together.

On the day of the crash, McCray added that Schmittel drove as fast as 110 mph on the winding Ortega Highway and was repeatedly swerving into oncoming traffic in order to avoid having to slow down on the highway's curves. Multiple cellphone videos taken by the men in the car were shown in court by Williams. They all showed the speedometer and, in at least one instance, Schmittel’s hand off of the wheel of the fast-moving car and sticking through the sunroof.

The speeding continued through Riverside County, Orange County and into San Diego County, according to Williams. Once on southbound Interstate 5 heading toward San Diego, Schmittel drove up to 140 mph, McCray said.

At some point in northern San Diego County, the group stopped, purchased seltzers and beers, then sat at a beach and drank alcohol, and McCray said he saw Schmittel consume what they believed were mushrooms cooked into a chocolate bar. A blood draw later taken from Schmittel indicated marijuana and Xanax were in his system, and he had a blood-alcohol level of around .08%, which is the legal driving limit in California for people over the age of 21.

Speed and alcohol are suspected to have been a factor in a deadly car crash that landed on a Torrey Pines beach.

McCray testified that the last thing he remembered before waking up in the crumpled vehicle was one of the other passengers asking Schmittel if he was "good to drive," to which Schmittel replied, "Yeah."

McCray sustained a broken femur, along with other injuries and needed 18 hours of surgery as a result of the crash, he said.

Williams urged the jury to find Schmittel guilty on the charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs that resulted in injury, driving the wrong way on a divided road and driving with a blood-alcohol level more than .05% as a minor.

“The catastrophe that brought the defendants car to Torrey Pines State Beach that night was entirely foreseeable and entirely avoidable,” Williams said, “but because of the way that the defendant drove, the alcohol that he drank and the drugs that he took, compounded by the bad and fatal decisions he continued to make, two 19-year-olds lost their lives.”

Sean Jones, of Jones Trial Attorneys, represented Schmittel during the first day of trial after his original counsel could not be there because of medical reasons. Jones shared that Schmittel has experience racing his car on a closed track. He said it was, "something he excelled at" and that he "liked to go fast," but he is hoping the jury does not pursue the murder charges his client is facing.

“Christopher was an experienced, capable, albeit overconfident driver,” Jones said to the jury. “He was surrounded by four other teenagers, engaging in the exact same risky reckless behavior as he. While the tragic consequences of that behavior might seem obvious in hindsight, this was nothing they had considered or meaningfully contemplated over the course of that day on their joyride.”

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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