Woman Sentenced in Hit-and-Run Crash That Killed 2 at Prayer Meeting

The 35-year-old driver pleaded no contest to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter

A woman who crashed her car into a house in the Harbor Gateway area where a prayer meeting was underway, killing two people and injuring 10 others, was sentenced Thursday to seven years in state prison.

Rashanda Norman, 35, had pleaded no contest to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter. Superior Court Judge Lynn D. Olson handed down the expected sentence.

The victims who died were 72-year-old Elsa de Belen, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, and 78-year-old Bella Cortes, who died few weeks after the crash. Norman, who surrendered to authorities July 28, apologized to the families in court and said she "never meant to hurt anyone."

Reading from a letter addressed to the "Prayer House Family," the woman said she knew that she "can never take back any of the lives that were lost upon my blackout."

"If I can ever be of help to you, I am a great friend, confidante, nurturer, and also I can cook," she said, noting that she would be willing to get to know the victims' families "so that they know first-hand the type of woman, mother, friend that I am."

"I am praying for all of you to recover from your pain and losses," the married mother of three children said. "I am also asking the Lord to help you all to forgive me for your most precious losses. Nothing can take the place of their lives, but I'm praying that you all have forgiving and loving hearts as you move forward."

The crash occurred just after 8 p.m. on July 27, 2016 in the 14000 block of South Orchard Avenue, near the 110 Freeway, according to the Los Angeles police and fire departments.

The car was southbound on Orchard Avenue "at a high rate of speed" when the driver crashed off the roadway and collided into a house where a group was gathered for "religious purposes," according to police.

At least one victim was trapped inside the home, underneath the car. All but one of the victims were women, and the patients taken to hospitals ranged in age from their 40s to 80s.

The maroon-colored sedan -- which was missing license plates -- remained wedged inside the house, and the driver ran from the scene.

The homeowner, a retired schoolteacher, regularly hosted prayer meetings in her living room, according to a family member of a victim.

Renellie de Belen Gonzales, de Belen's oldest daughter, said her mother would forgive Norman. She said her mother went to Mass every day, prayed "a lot" and was praying when the crash occurred.

"I hope that after you come out of jail you change your life," the victim's daughter said, speaking directly to Norman.

Norman -- who was sitting across the courtroom -- nodded her head repeatedly as Gonzales spoke.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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