(LOS ANGELES) -- For decades, California and car culture have gone hand-in-hand. Illegal races offer the chance to drive cars fast, burn rubber and get a rush of adrenaline, but it’s a lifestyle steeped in risk and recklessness. The slightest mistake can be deadly.
Sgt. Michael Downing of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department knows that risk all too well. He has spent his 17-year career patrolling LA’s streets.
“It seems lately, almost every weekend or every couple of weeks, we have a fatality somewhere in the county that's related to street racing,” he said. “You see on the freeway, all the time, the high speeds and they crash into somebody who's going slower or [an] innocent party on the freeway gets killed.”
Downing says racers believe they can get away with it and, because of the limited resources police have, it’s difficult to crack down.
The “City of Angels” is built around driving. But the same roads that make everyday life here possible for residents can also make living there treacherous.
Monique Munoz, 32, worked as a clinical receptionist at University of California, Los Angeles. But shortly after 5 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2021, she was driving home from work when she crossed the busy corner of Olympic Boulevard and Overland Avenue, and a 17-year-old boy driving a Lamborghini SUV worth more than $200,000 slammed into her Lexus sedan at what police say was over 100 miles per hour.
Although there was no evidence the teen was in a street race, authorities say the high-speed crash mangled Munoz’s car and she died at the scene.
“We could not believe Monique was gone,” said Richard Cartier, Munoz’s uncle and godfather. “This was so devastating to us … to the family.”
When police arrived at the family’s home later that day, Carol and Isaac Cardona were thrown into every parent’s worst nightmare.
“He pulls her license from his top-left pocket, puts it on the table and pushes it toward me and my wife, and says, ‘Sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but your daughter was killed in a car accident,’” Isaac Cardona, Munoz’s stepfather, said.
“The hardest thing for me was I didn't get to go shopping with her for a wedding dress,” said Carol Cardona, Munoz’s mother. “Instead, I had to find an outfit for her to be buried in.”
After her tragic death, family and friends came together to pressure the LA District Attorney to file charges against the teen.
“We have this responsibility to Monique to give her a voice, to speak for her, to give her justice… We’re just going to keep fighting,” Stephanie Crespin, Munoz’s cousin, said at a rally in March.
Isaac Cardona remains infuriated at what he calls the senselessness of Munoz’s death.
“It was avoidable. There was no reason for this to happen.” he said.
The teen driver’s father, multimillionaire entrepreneur James Khuri, apologized for the family’s loss.
"I am very, very sorry, and no words can say how sorry I am because those are just words,” Khuri said.
Richard Cartier, Munoz’s uncle and godfather, rejected the apology.
“[An] apology is when you bump into somebody, and you say, ‘I apologize. Oh, excuse me,’” he said. “This is murder. You can't apologize for a human life.”
The DA’s office charged the teen with felony vehicular manslaughter nearly two months after the crash. The teen admitted to the charge in juvenile court last week, which is the equivalent of a guilty plea.
“I want him to do 50 years, because I never want him to forget,” Cartier said.
He’s now under house arrest and awaiting sentencing at the end of June 2021. His lawyer has released a statement saying he anticipates the teen will receive either probation or up to about nine months in a juvenile facility. The most severe penalty for the charge in the state of California is six years.
For racing fans, the scene can be intoxicating. Hundreds of people gather at night for so called “takeovers,” when street corners are converted into speedways and tricked-out vehicles perform in outlawed street races. The takeovers were made infamous in films like “The Fast and the Furious.”
But in the real world, these streets are where everyday families live. Drivers perform dangerous stunts -- including burnouts and doughnuts -- in front of spectators while also endangering residents.
“On a weekly basis, we have street racing or street takeovers, where they'll block intersections causing problems for the community,” Downing said. “People trying to drive through the roads are blocked due to street takeovers. They result in traffic collisions and, unfortunately, fatal traffic collisions.”
Downing, who has seen these races during his nearly two-decade career, says the situation has “gotten a lot worse.”
“When I first started, it was simple street racing. The cars would go out -- 100, 200 cars -- they do a couple races on a closed off street and then leave,” he said. But now they’ve become more aggressive. “They're more combative towards law enforcement [and] to the public, where they take over an intersection and block the road. [If] police officers try and come in, they will smash the patrol cars as they come in. I've seen where they jump on fire trucks [when] the fire department is trying to get through, and … there's no respect anymore for law enforcement or for the public from these groups.”
One LA resident who did not want to share her name provided ABC News with video of a takeover from just outside her front door.
“Practically every weekend there’s burnouts, there’s people racing,” she said. “It’s very scary, they can even hit a house. They could hit an animal, child [or] pedestrian.”
Drivers leverage Instagram and Twitter to gather crowds and cultivate clout, Downing says.
“Social media is where they get their fan base for it and spectators,” Downing said. “But social media has also helped us because we all follow. So we keep track of the social media posts. We reach out on social media for information. If there's a major crash, a fatality, we reach out to those people posting those videos to get our information and help out with our investigation.”
In this world, fast cars equal prestige.
“You see a lot more of the muscle cars out for takeovers in street racing,” Downing said. “You'll see some of the higher-end cars that are more in like north LA County or LA City, like Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis.”
Former street racer Corey Smith was practically born in this world. He learned to drive when he was 11 and started racing at 12. Once addicted to those high speeds, he has since resigned from that life to focus on his Rialto, California, auto body shop.
“I pretty much gave it up. The cars now [are] extremely fast on the street -- very dangerous. It’s wild. Too much to lose,” he said. “It’s a drug you have to wean yourself off of. You gotta figure out right and wrong.”
But the high-stakes game of life and death hasn’t kept Eric Reece from getting behind the starting line. Just this past weekend, he raced four times.
“if you're at a street race, you can’t get mad if you get killed or go to jail,” Reece said. “You might get killed, your car might get wrecked, you might go to jail. That's the bottom line. If you don't want that, stay in [the] house.”
While many continue to live life on the edge, others are left to pick up the pieces. For Munoz’s family, the intersection where she died serves as a permanent and vivid reminder of their daughter, who lost her life in a high-speed crash.
“I'm sickened… I'm disgusted. I cry every day. I can't sleep,” Cartier, Munoz’s uncle, said.
For them, justice can’t come any sooner. The guilty plea is a small victory but not enough to ease their pain.
“Justice to me would have him testify[ing] in … the adult court and being prosecuted as an adult,” Cartier said.
The family now faces a long road ahead to healing.
“We don't think we can ever move forward, ever,” Cartier said. “We are all in a dark place. In order for us to move forward, bring back Monique.”