Through a multitude of tears, Simon Chavez’s family honored his memory Thursday during an emotional sentencing hearing in Santa Barbara for the man who admitted killing him and then fleeing the scene.
The hearing provided a chance for those who loved Chavez, 22, to voice the loss they suffered in January, when Lau Van Huynh struck and killed him while he staggered on Highway 101 near the Ortega Street footbridge. After the collision, Huynh continued driving to his home in Riverside County.
Family and friends remembered Chavez as a lover of 1980s music and movies, a compassionate big brother and a die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan, a young man who lit up a room with his smile.
He was not, they said, merely someone described in the headlines as the victim of a violent incident.
“That is not the correct definition of my cousin,” said Ashton Falchi, speaking to the court through tears. “My Simon was something special. Simon had a life, a future, a family. ... Now all we have is a picture and a memory.”
Chavez, a former Santa Barbara High School baseball coach, was found just after 1 a.m. Jan. 15 on the southbound freeway lanes near the Ortega Street footbridge.
Several witnesses reported that Chavez had been staggering in traffic before he was struck, according to testimony last month in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Pieces of a white 2011 Hyundai Tucson, including the driver-side mirror, were found at the scene, but the driver had not stopped.
Eleven days later, police arrested Huynh, 78, of Murrieta, on charges of felony hit-and-run, and hit-and-run with fatal injuries.
Investigators had found a vehicle matching the description in Huynh’s garage, and had to obtain a search warrant to gain access to it after Huynh’s daughter told them they couldn’t search the vehicle and that she didn’t know anyone by her father’s name, according to court testimony.
California Highway Patrol officers stated that the vehicle appeared as if it had been wiped down on the driver’s door panel and where there was collision damage.
Grief was evident among the numerous family members who spoke in court Thursday. One question that came up again and again was why Huynh would choose to keep driving after hitting Chavez.
“(Huynh) knew exactly what he hit,” said Chavez’s cousin, Myra Martinez.
The family was most disturbed that Huynh apparently had help cleaning Chavez’s blood off his vehicle “as if it was that of a deer that meant nothing to anybody,” Martinez said.
She said the family will never have complete closure because they still don’t know why Chavez was on the freeway.
Family members recalled that Chavez had volunteered with the Special Olympics because his younger brother, Christian, has autism.
At the time of his death, Chavez had been working as well as taking classes at Santa Barbara City College because he wanted to become a history teacher and continue coaching baseball.
Several family members recounted the trauma of hearing the news for the first time, some from seeing the body covered by a sheet on television news only to find out later it was Chavez.
Thursday’s most emotional moments came when Chavez’s stepfather, Luis Quintanar, spoke.
“My family, my wife and kids forgive you for killing my son, but we can never forgive your selfish motives,” he told Huynh, adding that he had “no respect over a human being’s life.”
Chavez had made a mistake by walking on the freeway, said Quintanar, his voice shaking. It was a mistake that had cost him his life, he added.
Two people also spoke about Huynh’s character Thursday, including 15-year friend Richard Peña.
“He’s a good man,” he said of Huynh. “This is tragic for both families. There are no winners today, no matter what happens.”
Through a Vietnamese translator, Huynh quietly apologized to Chavez’s family before Judge Jean Dandona called an end to the hearing.
Huynh pleaded guilty last month, and Dandona sentenced him Thursday to three years of probation on the condition that he serve one year in the Santa Barbara County Jail.
Because of time served and work hours, Huynh already has completed 137 days of that time. He must also pay $19,715 in restitution to Chavez’s family, and $1,680 in other restitution and fines, Dandona said.