On Christmas night in a quiet section of Old Town Pasadena, the sound of crunching, screeching car metal drew residents from their homes. A silver SUV, pursued at high speeds on surface streets by an FBI agent and a Pasadena police officer, had barreled through a red light, slamming into a family in a minivan who were leaving the area after Christmas festivities.
The deaths of Tracey Noelle Ong Tan, 25, of Glendale, and her cousin Kendrick Ng, 11, of Daly City, were widely reported in L.A. and the Bay Area. But the L.A. Weekly has learned that, had the same set of events unfolded in Los Angeles and not Pasadena, the tragedy might have been averted — because Pasadena has looser rules for police pursuits than the L.A. Police Department, which toughened its policy amidst national criticism of dangerous chases.
Witnesses tell the Weekly Tan died instantly. Paramedics wrested Ng free from the mangled family minivan but couldn't revive him, says William Carrillo, 18, who rushed out to the street when he heard the crash. Johann Juarez, 34, was among a group of good Samaritans leaving a Christmas church service who helped one dazed woman from the wreckage.
"Everyone was in shock," Juarez says. "The driver — the people that survived, I could see it in their faces. There was just shock." Juarez says the minivan driver, a man, called to Tan, then said, "She's gone."
Tan and Ng were among three Christmas Day fatalities of innocent bystanders directly related to Pasadena's gang wars. In a tragic twist, the third fatality — which occurred nine hours earlier when Sheriff's Department employee and youth coach Victor McClinton was felled by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooter — may have played a role in the later deaths of Tan and Ng.
In a stepped-up crackdown on suburban gangs, the Pasadena Police Department recently joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and several law enforcement agencies to form the San Gabriel Valley Safe Streets Task Force, which allows smaller towns to pool resources and draw help from the feds to bust up sophisticated crime rings or respond quickly to serious crime.
On Christmas Day, such an occasion arose. About 11 a.m., Damion Taylor, 24, known to police as a gang member, was in his SUV in a Pasadena neighborhood when a man in a gray SUV allegedly opened fire. Taylor was hit but survived.
But popular coach McClinton, who was in his front yard, was killed. Pasadena police called on their multi-agency task force partners to put immediate pressure on local gangs in hopes of finding the shooter, says Deputy Chief Darryl Qualls of the Pasadena Police Department. They were told to look for a gray or silver vehicle.
Nine hours later, Tan and Ng were killed — by a silver SUV fleeing police at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Although officials will not confirm a connection, the FBI agent and his Pasadena Police Department partner were looking for a gray or silver vehicle because of the earlier killing of McClinton.
Officials say that at about 8 p.m., an unidentified FBI agent, driving a black, unmarked federal vehicle with an unidentified Pasadena police officer as passenger, saw a silver Dodge Durango SUV. According to Qualls, the agent and officer noticed that the black male driver of the Durango wore a red cap, similar to those worn by the Bloods.
The silver Durango appeared to try to get away from them, says Lt. Tracey Ibarra of Pasadena PD's criminal investigations division. The Durango ran a stop sign, then the driver slammed on the brakes in the middle of the intersection. A passenger in the back seat kept looking back at the unmarked FBI car, says Ibarra. The FBI car activated its lights and siren, but the Durango rolled along slowly. Then the SUV driver pulled over but didn't cut his engine. According to Ibarra and Qualls, the agent and officer got out and approached the SUV, shouting for the driver to turn off his engine.
When they got close, the Durango sped off. The FBI agent pursued it down Marengo Avenue, where the SUV blasted through a red light at 50 to 60 mph, slamming into the side of the minivan containing Tan and Ng, 11; plus Ng's father, Kenric Ng, 49; his mother, Irene Ng, 52; and his 16-year-old sister.
The fatal police chase lasted all of one minute.
In L.A. and many other cities, police pursuits stemming from minor crimes are forbidden. In Pasadena, rules are murkier, forcing individual officers and watch commanders to make split-second decisions during tense and dangerous situations.
After the pursuit, a witness called police to report that someone threw a gun from the SUV as it sped along Marengo, Qualls says. Officers found the loaded weapon and determined it was not related to the earlier drive-by slaying of McClinton, Qualls tells the Weekly. (Some media reports, based on initial police statements, implied that police saw a gun being thrown, which is not accurate.)
Four people in the Durango that killed Tan and Ng were arrested: driver Darryl Williams, 22, of Pasadena, and passengers Brittany Washington, 21, of L.A.; Demauria Hannah, 22, of Pasadena; and Jada Mays, 18, of Pasadena. Prosecutors have charged Williams and Washington with murder.
Then, three days later, police arrested Larry Bishop, 20, on suspicion of murdering McClinton. He was driving a gray Chevrolet Captiva, not a Durango, and was believed to be in a different Bloods set than those involved in the police pursuit and fatal crash, police said.
According to incomplete data compiled by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration, bystanders account for about one-third of deaths during police pursuits, one reason such pursuits are so controversial. Officers rarely die. Fleeing suspects die most often. Innocent bystanders rank second in the death count.
Pasadena detectives will investigate the fatal collision, and the watch commander who oversaw the pursuit from the station will present a detailed analysis to department brass, Qualls says.
Pasadena's pursuit policy gives the on-duty watch commander full authority to decide how long to continue a chase. It's not clear if an FBI agent must obey, but Qualls says that question did not come into play because the chase was over so quickly.
LAPD bans officers from chasing a driver suspected of an infraction or reckless driving unless the driver appears to be under the influence. If the Durango had blown through a stop sign in L.A., odds are LAPD would not engage in a high-speed chase.
Candy Priano, executive director of the nonprofit PursuitSAFETY, says, "The fleeing driver does not care about anyone's safety." Priano's daughter was killed a decade ago in Chico when her van was struck by a fleeing driver. She says, "The burden, by necessity, falls on the police to keep the public and themselves safe."
Policing experts agree that chases should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. "You're driving a ton of metal down a road at 60 miles per hour," says Gareth Jones, an internationally recognized expert. "There is more than a remote possibility that someone is going to get killed." He said running a stop sign seems like a weak reason to begin a high-speed pursuit.
At the intersection of Maple and Marengo this week, a makeshift shrine served as an indication of the tragedy. The shrine appeared to have been put together mostly by neighbors and churchgoers, with some messages written entirely in Spanish.
Wrapped around a light pole was a sweatshirt from Our Lady of Mercy, the Bay Area school where Kendrick Ng was in sixth grade. A message from the school was posted nearby, announcing the boy's death to the school's parents.
"May (Ng's) soul be lifted by the Christmas angels," it concluded. "May his cousin too be (cradled) by our Blessed Mother."