Jurors on Thursday convicted a 47-year-old man of murder and a number of other crimes in connection with a 2019 crash that killed a local dog walker and five of the six dogs she was transporting in an SUV.
Javier Olivarez Jr. was fleeing from Long Beach police in a stolen van the morning of May 7, 2019, when he slammed into an SUV containing 41-year-old Jessica Bingaman and six dogs at Temple Avenue and Third Street.
Prosecutors said that Olivarez was driving under the influence of methamphetamines and traveling up to 68 miles per hour in the stolen van prior to striking Bingaman’s car.
The force of the crash was so strong, one officer testified during trial, that it pushed Bingaman’s driver seat into the SUV’s center console, leading first responders at the time to believe she was a passenger in the vehicle.
Bingaman, a beloved Rose Park resident who owned The Pawtenders dog-walking and training business, suffered traumatic injuries as a result of the crash, including a collapsed lung and laceration to her liver. She later died from her injuries at the hospital.
Four of the dogs she had with her inside the SUV were pronounced dead at the scene, and a fifth died after being taken to Signal Hill Animal Hospital, according to prosecutors.
The sixth dog was eventually released to its owners after being treated for lacerations.
Olivarez suffered only minor injuries in the crash and was eventually discharged from the hospital and booked on suspicion of evading a police officer, felony DUI and vehicular manslaughter.
Olivarez, a known gang member who police said had violated parole, was then charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office with one count each of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, fleeing a pursuing peace officer’s vehicle causing death and driving or taking a vehicle without consent, along with six counts of cruelty to an animal. The vehicular manslaughter charge was later upped to murder.
Olivarez’s trial began on Wednesday, May 10, nearly four years to the date after the crash. It centered around witness testimony from the owners of the stolen van, LBPD officers who pursued Olivarez, the pet owners whose dogs were in Bingaman’s SUV, toxicology experts who analyzed the white crystalline substance found in the stolen vehicle, and vehicle data from the moments leading up to the crash.
Officer Maxwell Schroeder testified in court that he was dispatched to the area of Second Street and Alamitos Avenue sometime around 10:30 a.m. on May 7, 2019, after an automated license plate reader detected a stolen vehicle in the area.
Schroeder testified that rather than tow the vehicle away, he conducted surveillance in an effort to apprehend whoever was in possession of the vehicle and prevent further thefts, a tactic that Olivarez’s attorney questioned.
The officer told jurors that he eventually saw the reportedly stolen vehicle move and he followed it for a bit before losing sight of it.
Schroeder said he eventually saw the vehicle again, and after having dispatch confirm it was reported stolen, he initiated a pursuit, testifying that Olivarez was driving at high rates of speeds during the chase and only slowed down when rolling through stop signs.
Although Schroeder didn’t see the actual collision on Temple Avenue and Third Street, his body-worn camera footage captured the moments after the crash, which showed the wrecked vehicles and the rest of the damage that was caused to parked cars in the area.
One witness who heard the crash testified that it sounded like an explosion had gone off.
During closing arguments on Thursday, Deputy District Attorney Karen Brako contended that Olivarez was under the influence of methamphetamine when he “willfully” and “intentionally” sped through Long Beach streets, including a residential area where the posted speed limit was 25 mph, and rolled through several stops signs in an effort to escape from police the morning of the crash.
Brako also said that Olivarez’s actions show he had a conscious disregard for human life while committing the crimes and that he was trying to “get away at any cost.”
“He intentionally went pedal to the metal,” Brako told jurors. “If you blow through a stop sign at 70 miles per hour, you know you can kill or seriously injure someone.”
Olivarez’s attorney, Efren Navar, never disputed that his client was evading police while behind the wheel of the stolen vehicle, which he crashed into Bingaman.
He did, however, argue that Olivarez wasn’t intoxicated while driving and accused Brako of trying to “gaslight” the jury.
According to Navar, Olivarez’s actions did not amount to murder or animal cruelty because he didn’t act deliberately or maliciously prior to the crash, and there was no way he could have known there were dogs in the SUV.
Instead, Navar placed blame on Officer Schroeder for failing to recover the stolen van and instead “risk pursuit.”
He said that evidence shown during trial revealed Olivarez was driving perfectly, in the proper lanes, and had not committed any infractions up until police turned their sirens on, which then led to Olivarez’s “desperate” attempt to escape.
Navar also argued that Olivarez’s concern for Bingaman following the crash countered Brako’s point that he had acted with a conscious disregard for human life. Video played in court shows Olivarez asking officers if the person whose vehicle he hit was OK.
“That’s not a disregard for life. That’s a concern for life,” said Navar, who asked jurors to return with a not guilty verdict.
Brako, in her rebuttal, told the jury the reason they were in court today was not because Officer Schroeder found a stolen vehicle, but because Olivarez chose to drive the vehicle in a reckless manner and killed someone.
“Don’t go putting this on Officer Schroeder, who is doing his job,” Brako said. “We wouldn’t be here today… if (Olivarez) would’ve followed the law and dealt with the consequences of driving a stolen vehicle while high on meth.”
She added that it didn’t matter whether Olivarez was driving perfectly or not and that understanding speeding and reckless driving can kill someone is common knowledge for any reasonable person.
“This was not an accident. This was a conscious decision that put people at risk,” Brako said.
After six days of hearing evidence, jurors deliberated for less than two hours before reaching a verdict and finding Olivarez guilty of one count each of second-degree murder, evading a pursuing peace officer’s vehicle causing death, driving or taking a vehicle without consent, and six counts of animal cruelty.
Olivarez is due back in court on June 21 where a judge will rule on additional aggravated factors related to the case.