A man driving the wrong way on the highway killed himself and a Navy Seabee officer, and injured another officer.
By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times
Malibu residents were reminded again about the dangers of Pacific Coast Highway when an early morning traffic collision on Friday led to the fourth and fifth deaths of the year on the local portion of the state highway. As has been alleged with the incident that caused the April death of 13-year-old Emily Rose Shane, this latest crash might have also been intentional.
The driver of a Saturn moving in the wrong direction in a westbound lane of Pacific Coast Highway near Zuma View Place (close to Zumirez Drive) at 12:42 a.m. Friday struck head-on a Mustang containing two Seabees from Naval Base Ventura County. The drivers of the Saturn and the Mustang were killed. The passenger of the Mustang received a compound fracture to his left leg and left arm as well as a concussion. He is expected to survive, said Sgt. Phil Brooks, head traffic officer at Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station.
The killed Seabee was Petty Officer Oscar Avila Mendoza, 23. His widow is expecting a child, according to an article in the Ventura County Star. The survivor is Petty Officer Jesus Saenz, 24. (Brooks said the officer would have died if he had not been wearing a seatbelt.) The driver of the Saturn is believed to be James Sorg, 40, but Malibu/Lost Hills officials cannot confirm this because the body was charred from a fire ignited by the crash. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office is conducting an autopsy to identify the victim.
Brooks said Sorg’s mother said her son was schizophrenic and had not been taking his medication. She said he had also been drinking lately. Brooks said evidence of possible illegal drug use was found at a trailer off Latigo Canyon where he had been living. Sorg came to Southern California from Minnesota in March.
Witnesses from two other vehicles said the Saturn nearly collided head-on with their vehicles prior to the crash. They said the Saturn was going the wrong way in the westbound lanes during these incidents as well. Because of these accounts, investigators suspect the crash might not have been accidental.
“Obviously that’s highly suspect, but there is no video or note of him saying ‘I’m going to go kill myself and kill somebody else,’” Brooks said. “We may never have a definite answer; however, based on his actions, it does appear fairly reckless.”
The investigation is ongoing. Brooks called the incident “very strange.”
“I am speculating, but if somebody wants to commit suicide coming down Latigo, you have several options there,” he said. “However, there may be more information at some time that might explain if these actions were intentional or not. It appears to anybody with common sense that obviously he didn’t have a steering problem since he went up and down PCH three times making turns and passing a car and coming back at them.”
The Saturn became engulfed in flames following the accident. Local resident Richard Kraft said he heard the crash from his home. He said he used his fire extinguisher to put out some of the flames that spread to the Mustang prior to the arrival of fire officials, and notified the officials of the survivor in the car. While attending to the burning car, several onlookers yelled for Kraft to leave because they feared he was in danger, Kraft said.
“As far as I was concerned, they could have been Malibu people or not, when there is an accident on my corner, those people are my family and I do everything I can to make sure they survive,” Kraft said.
Although highway safety has become the top issue in Malibu this year, and is never far from the top any other year, Brooks said this incident was not an example of something that could be prevented with better safety precautions.
“If it’s an accident, it’s one thing,” he said. “But if somebody is driving on the wrong side of the road, they are going to get on the wrong side of the road any which way they can. That’s what appeared at least two instances before the collision that he did.”
City Councilmember Lou La Monte, who is on the Pacific Coast Highway Safety Ad Hoc Committee with Councilmember Laura Rosenthal, called the incident “tragic” and expressed his sympathy for the families of the officers. He agreed with Brooks’ analysis about whether anything could be done by law enforcement or government officials to prevent something like this.
“It was one of those situations where no matter how many officers you have on patrol at any given time, things like this, they just happen,” La Monte said. “In the middle of the night, it’s very difficult for anybody to do anything about it.”
Since Shane’s death, a group of activists calling themselves A Safer PCH, or ASPCH, has been meeting frequently to discuss highway safety issues and what should be done. ASPCH member Susan Saul said she believes likely nothing could have been done to prevent last week’s incident, but she said much more needs to be done to protect the highway. Saul applauded last month’s decision to add an additional motorcycle patrol to the highway, but she said nothing has happened since that time. Saul said progress “needs to step up a bit.”
“I think they hired the cop and said everybody’s going to be quiet for now,” Saul said.
In another incident the same week, the day before the fatal accident, a young woman fell asleep while driving on PCH near Rambla Vista midafternoon and crashed into two parked cars, flipping her car onto its roof. Brooks said the young woman only suffered scraped knees.
Saul said she and other members will come to Monday’s City Council meeting “yelling and screaming.”
“Because once again, it took this accident to say ‘OK, this is not a safe highway. We’ve got to keep trying. We’ve got to keep educating and we’ve got to plan for the future.’”
She said even if the city cannot afford some of the projects her group has in mind, such as overpasses on the highway and creating pamphlets on traffic safety, it should plan for them now so that they can go into effect when the money is available.
La Monte said it is incorrect to say things are not progressing. He said city officials are “literally working every day” on the highway safety.
“The changes that we’re talking about making are big changes, and we’re working on them,” he said. “They take time. There’s no easy fix to any of this stuff. I’ve been in contact with the CHP. I’ve been in contact with the Sheriff’s office. I’ve been in contact with Sheriff Lee Baca personally. Things are moving.”