By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
It was about 8:15 Sunday morning, July 15, 2001, whenLisa Piho sped toward the intersection of Warner Avenue and Graham Street in Huntington Beach. Later she would say she failed to see the red light because she was changing a CD in her stereo. That might help explain why she was driving 53 miles per hour when, halfway through the intersection, she was broadsided by a car that had the green light—rammed so forcefully that the collision sent her car spinning into 55-year-old Mark de la Fuente, who was crossing the street with his dog. Police arrived within minutes. While Piho passed a field sobriety test, she declined to provide a blood or urine sample that would reveal any drugs in her system.
Because she was on probation, Piho could have been arrested for that refusal. Instead, police released her on her own recognizance. Later, after her car had been towed and its contents inventoried, police would discover a small bag of methamphetamines in a suitcase in the trunk.
It was impossible to know it at the time, but Piho's accident would set into motion a police scandal involving a seedy Santa Ana strip club, cops, sex and drugs. It would also claim another victim: Andrea Nelson, a young girl who police believe may have been murdered because she knew too much.
Sandra de la Fuente was still in bed that morning when her husband told her he was going to walk the dog. About an hour later, she heard sirens. Their 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter were still asleep a short while later when the telephone rang. On the line was a social worker at UCI Medical Center.
"Your husband has been in an accident," the ?woman said.
She woke the kids and rushed them out the door. The family dog was waiting on the doorstep, a leash hanging from its neck. A few minutes later, she reached Warner Avenue.
That's when she saw the police cars.
"I bet that's Daddy's accident," she remembers saying. As she parked the car, an officer walked toward her, waving his arms, indicating that she ought to get back in her car and keep moving. The cop assumed she was just an onlooker.
"I asked him if this is where the pedestrian was hit," Sandra recalls.
The cop asked why she wanted to know.
"I said, 'I'm his wife,'" she says.
The cop's hard expression melted into something like helpless sympathy.
"Ma'am," he said. "You have to get to the hospital. You have to hurry."
Sandra noticed a young woman sitting on a nearby bus bench. She was rocking back and forth uncontrollably. Sandra immediately figured the woman had hit her husband. Sandra was in shock but somehow managed to speak to her anyhow.
"I just looked at her and shouted, 'Don't worry. It was just an accident,'" she recalls. "That's all I thought at the time."
The woman let out a wail.
At the hospital, Sandra identified herself at theemergency-room desk. A nurse ushered her and the kids into a waiting room. Sandra had worked as a volunteer at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. One of her responsibilities was to escort relatives of mortally wounded patients to a waiting room. "That," she says, "is when I really knew it was bad."
Three hours later, a doctor told her Mark was still alive but completely unresponsive. His heart had stopped 10 times that morning. He had massive brain damage, a broken pelvis and countless other injuries, each serious enough to kill him. He was bleeding so severely that medical staffers were pumping three times his body's volume of blood to keep him alive.
Mark de la Fuente didn't die that day, but he never left the hospital. His body broken, his organs failing, he would occasionally open his eyes when Sandra or the kids spoke to him. But there was no other movement, no spark of recognition. Thirty-one days later, he died.
About a week after the funeral, Sandra drove to the Huntington Beach Fire Department to deliver a box of candy to the emergency crew that had helped bring Mark to the hospital. She asked to see the chief.
"I am so sorry about what happened to your husband," he said. "It was a shame he was killed by such a person."
Another fireman who was standing there grabbed the chief's arm.
"He said, 'Shhh,'" Sandra recalls.
She demanded to know what the chief meant. He struggled for a response.
"One of our guys recognized her," he finally said.
Later that week, Sandra paid a visit to the police officer in charge of the investigation of her husband's death. She couldn't believe Piho hadn't been arrested. She mentioned the incident at the fire station. The cop looked embarrassed.
"One of my men recognized her, too," he said.
If cops and firefighters recognized Lisa Piho, it was probably because they frequented Mr. J's. It isn't much to look at—a nondescript building on Edinger Street just off the Costa Mesa Freeway. But in its heyday, the Santa Ana topless bar was a booming business, a favorite after-hours hangout for cops, businessmen and Orange County's shadiest characters. Mr. J's didn't have the best-looking dancers—that prize goes to Captain Cream, the semi-nude club in Lake Forest. But it had a reputation for pretty bartenders and cocktail waitresses, as well as bouncers who were known to go easy on no-contact rules in the early a.m. hours.