Driver in Oceanside fatal crash that killed passenger pleads not guilty

Jorge Luis Lopez is suspected of racing, DUI

VISTA, Calif. - A 21-year-old man accused of driving drunk and leading officers on a reckless North County road chase that ended with a crash that killed his passenger pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder and other felony charges.

Jorge Luis Lopez, who is also charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and evading police officers, was ordered held in lieu of $2 million bail. The defendant faces 22 years to life in prison if convicted.

Lopez was allegedly speeding in a 1991 Honda Civic on state Route 78 in Oceanside alongside a westbound sedan -- apparently racing the other motorist -- when officers spotted him near College Boulevard shortly before 1 a.m. last Friday.

The other driver slowed down, but Lopez refused to yield and fled at speeds reaching 100 mph, soon merging onto northbound Interstate 5, said California Highway Patrol Officer Jim Bettencourt.

Lopez exited onto Mission Avenue and headed east before turning south on Mesa Drive, continuing on at about 80 mph before hitting a dip in the road, veering out of control and crashing into a parked pickup truck near Mesa and Pajama drives, according to Bettencourt.

The suspect suffered moderately serious injuries and was airlifted to Scripps La Jolla Hospital. His male passenger -- identified as 21-year-old Marco Gutierrez of Oceanside -- died at the scene of the wreck.

At his arraignment, Lopez's right wrist was in a cast and he had stitches in his forehead as he appeared before the judge.

Several family members were in the courtroom, including Lopez's wife and baby. Marian Lopez was seen standing in the courtroom, trying to get her husband's attention, before the hearing began.

Gutierrez was Marian Lopez's brother, and her husband’s best friend, according to family members who said they were unified in their support of Lopez.

During the arraignment, Deputy District Attorney Patrick Espinoza told Judge Marshall Hockett that the defendant had three speeding citations from 2010, including one in which he was driving 100 mph.

Lopez also has a misdemeanor DUI-related conviction from last year in which he was advised about the dangers of drinking and driving, the prosecutor said.

The judge called Lopez a flight risk and "an extreme danger to the community" and ordered Lopez be held without bail.

If convicted, Lopez could face 22 years to life in prison.

At least one witness told reporters that several Oceanside police officers involved in end of the pursuit seemingly taunted Lopez, smirking or laughing at him shortly after the crash. Such accusations of impropriety "are taken very seriously," Oceanside police Capt. Fred Armijo said previously.

"As part of our preliminary investigation, the CHP allowed us to review the video-camera footage from their patrol vehicles, which were the first to arrive at the scene of the (crash)," the captain said. "We have also interviewed other witnesses in the neighborhood. We have found no evidence that Oceanside police officers behaved inappropriately, nor have we found any evidence to support the ... (witness) allegations."

A readiness conference is scheduled Nov. 30 and a preliminary hearing for Dec. 5.

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