Orange County

2 Men Charged in Death of Longtime OC Newspaper Editor

Eugene Harbrecht, who had worked at The Orange County Register since 1984, was killed in a street racing crash near his home in Santa Ana.

Orange County Register

Two alleged street racers were charged Monday -- one of them with second-degree murder and DUI counts and the other with gross vehicular manslaughter -- in a fiery crash that killed a veteran newspaper editor near his Santa Ana home.

Louie Robert Villa, 29, of Santa Ana, is charged with second-degree murder, driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and driving with a blood-alcohol content exceeding the legal limit of .08% causing bodily injury, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor counts of engaging in a speed contest and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to a prior DUI.

Villa has multiple DUI-related convictions for driving on a suspended or revoked license, and had been advised that if he was involved in a deadly DUI crash, he could be charged with murder instead of manslaughter, according to prosecutors.

"It's hard for me to even accept that he died the way he did," a reporter and friend of the victim said. Hetty Chang reports for NBC LA at 11 p.m. Thursday July 30, 2020.

The second-degree murder count means Villa faces at least 15 years to life in prison if convicted.

The arraignment of Villa, who remains hospitalized at UC Irvine Medical Center, was rescheduled to Aug. 31 in the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. His bail was set at $1 million.

Ricardo Navarro Tolento, 24, of Santa Ana, is charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run with permanent and serious injury, both felonies, and faces a sentencing enhancement of fleeing the scene of a vehicular manslaughter. He is additionally charged with a misdemeanor count of engaging in a speed contest.

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They are accused in the death of 67-year-old Eugene Harbrecht, who had worked at the Orange County Register since 1984, most recently as the national and international news editor for the Southern California News Group that encompasses the Register and 10 other newspapers.

A Register story about Harbrecht described him as "a fixture in the Register newsroom'' who "constantly was relied upon for his news judgment.''

He played a key role in determining what wire service stories appeared on the front pages of SCNG newspapers.

The collision occurred just before 11:45 a.m. last Thursday at Bristol Street and Santa Clara Avenue, according to Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.

Navarro, who was driving an Infiniti, was allegedly racing with Villa, who was behind the wheel of a BMW. They were traveling north on Bristol approaching Santa Clara Avenue when the BMW struck Harbrecht's Ford pickup truck as he was turning left onto Santa Clara, Bertagna said.

The pickup truck skidded 60 to 70 feet and caught fire, Bertagna said. Two area residents dashed over to help pull the victim out of the burning vehicle, Bertagna said.

Navarro fled the scene, but a witness got the license plate and police tracked him down hours later, police said.

The BMW was totaled and Villa was taken to an area hospital, where he was placed under arrest, Bertagna said.

Court records show Villa pleaded guilty in October 2018 to corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to DUI, and disobeying a domestic relations court order, all misdemeanors. In May 2015, he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia and driving on a suspended or revoked license due to DUI.

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