The faces behind roadside memorial shrines

SCV resident Roger Rodas, who ran a nonprofit organization with Walker, was reportedly driving the Porsche Carrera GT somewhere between 80-94 mph when the car crashed, killing Rodas and Walker. Signal photo by Dan Watson

Whether young or old, in a car or on a bike, several high-profile crashes in the Santa Clarita Valley over the last few years have claimed a number of lives and spurred discussion about road safety.

We see glimpses of them as we drive by roadside shrines marking their deaths. And Central Park hosts a Walk of Remembrance at the Youth Grove, a memorial to all the lives cut short in fatal crashes.

Judging by the unprecedented number of mourners and well-wishers who visited the SCV after the fatal crash, perhaps the SCV’s most famous crash is the death of “Fast & the Furious” actor Paul Walker.

Walker, 40, and Roger Rodas, 38, were killed when the Porsche driven by Rodas smashed into a light pole and tree and then burst into flames Nov. 30, 2013, near Rye Canyon Loop.

But there have been many others, each tragic in their own way. As Santa Clarita prepares for its annual submissions for names for its youth grove, which honors those no longer with us due to roadside tragedies, we looked back at some of the SCV’s most tragic crashes.

Fans gather near the Hercules Street and Kelly Johnson Parkway street signs at the site of the memorial for Paul Walker. Fans gather each year to celebrate the life of the actor who died at age 40 in a fiery crash near the Valencia industrial park in November 2013. 12/04/2013 Signal photo by Charlie Kaijo

Paul Walker roadside memorial

Each year, fans file by the tree stump that marks the spot where the crash occurred — near Kelly Johnson Parkway and Hercules Street, despite efforts to remove the candles and photos and graffiti left each year.

The two men were preparing for a charity fundraiser for their nonprofit, Reach Out Worldwide, when the crash occurred.

One fan, Kyle Duval, visiting the unofficial roadside shrine in 2016, said: “He’s got a big fan base, and it’s for everything he did, not just the films.”

Sadly, their deaths are not an isolated incident.

Newhall Roadside memorial

Teresa Mae Angeli, 62, of Newhall, was riding her bicycle on Railroad Avenue at 15th Street in March, when she was struck and killed. Her death is marked with a “ghost bike” placed at the scene. The ghost bikes are bikes painted white that are meant to remind drivers to be more careful, often by being put out on display at the scene of a fatal crash.

Before the month was out, a pedestrian would be struck and killed in the same area.

On March 3, shortly after 6:15 p.m., Cecilio Vasquez, 61, of Newhall, was hit by a vehicle on Railroad Avenue at Lyons Avenue.

No criminal charges were filed in either case.

Other fatal crashes, like those involving hit-and-run drivers, can be very tough to solve, leaving law enforcement officers to go to great lengths to close the case. 

In 2017, then-Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Capt. Roosevelt Johnson held a news conference to announce a $25,000 reward for information leading to the motorist who hit and killed 15-year-old Desiree Lawson. The investigation remains an open case. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze

Hit and run

Two-and-a-half years after 15-year-old Desiree Lawson was struck and killed by a motorist on Sierra Highway, detectives are still looking for the person responsible.

On Dec. 26, 2016, deputies were dispatched to Sierra Highway to discover a disturbing scene.

Lawson was found lying in the street. She was later transported to a hospital where she succumbed to her injuries. 

Lawson’s death resonated with many in the SCV.

Rosalind Wayman, who served as field deputy to Supervisor Kathryn Barger at the time, told reporters shortly after the crash: “This loss has really shaken the community and Supervisor Barger is committed to bringing those responsible to justice.” Wayman went on to say it was a “heinous crime.” 

A $25,000 reward offered to anyone knowing the whereabouts of the culprit from the collision remains unclaimed.

Some hit and run drivers are found, however, and held accountable.

A bicycle belonging to beloved Arroyo Seco Junior High School math teacher Roderick Bennett lies on Placerita Canyon Road, where the instructor was hit and killed by a motorist who left the scene. Lucas James Guidroz, 28, received a 10-year sentence for the crime in 2016. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze

Rod Bennett

Rod Bennett, 53, of Canyon Country, was a popular teacher at Arroyo Seco Junior High School. An avid rider, he was struck and killed May 25, 2016, as he rode his bicycle on Placerita Canyon Road.

Six months later,  Lucas James Guidroz, 28, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading no contest on Oct. 4, 2016, to one count each of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and hit-and-run driving resulting in death.

The SCV has two vehicular manslaughter cases being heard in court.

In one of those cases, six people died in one crash.

Vehicular manslaughter 

Richard Lopez is charged with six misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter for allegedly having struck a minivan with his Freightliner truck at 3:37 a.m. on June 28, 2016, in the southbound lanes of Interstate 5, just south of Gorman School Road.

The two women who died inside the burning 2016 Toyota Sienna minivan were Connie Wu Li and Flora Kuang, both 33. The children killed in the same vehicle were Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2.

Lopez was on trial this year for vehicular manslaughter but In March, the trial ended in a hung jury, and a mistrial was declared.

A new trial is pending.

The second ongoing vehicular manslaughter trial involved driver Joe Lopez, 27, of Little Rock, no relation.

Joe Lopez is accused of slamming into the back of a parked car on the shoulder of Highway 14, on Aug. 13, 2017, killing Sam H. Edinburgh, 62, of Palmdale.

He is scheduled to appear in court this month.

So as you come and go throughout the SCV you’re reminded to be careful as pass by roadside shrines assembled for some of the victims.

In memorium

Teresa Savaikie assembled such a roadside memorial for her 14-year-old son Wyatt.

Ralph August Steger, of Canyon Country, struck and killed Wyatt with his car July 16, 2015, while the boy was crossing the street in a marked crosswalk, near Bouquet Canyon and Seco Canyon roads in Saugus.

Steger pleaded no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, speeding and running a red light, for which he was sentenced  to 60 days in a Los Angeles County jail.

The flowery roadside shrine for 18-year-old Hart High School grad Collin Charles Gore remains in place on McBean Parkway, just south of Decoro Drive.

Valencia roadside memorial

Gore was killed in a traffic collision on July 4, 2017. 

Toxicology tests revealed months after the crash that the other driver,  34-year-old Joel Thomas Godfrey, of Santa Clarita, was intoxicated at the time of the crash. He also died in the collision.

Castaic fatal

The latest fatality in the Santa Clarita Valley was identified recently as Erwin Geremillo, a 47-year-old AAA tow truck driver, who lived in Castaic.

Geremillo was helping motorists in the southbound lanes of I-5, just south of Vista Del Lago Road in Castaic at night, when he was killed by a big rig in a hit-and-run.Law enforcement officers are still looking for the motorist responsible.

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