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Orange County journalist killed after alleged street racer crashes into his pickup truck

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    ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. (KCAL/KCBS) — A 67-year-old man was dead Thursday after a car involved in a street race in Santa Ana crashed into his truck, causing a fiery wreck.

Police said the victim, longtime Orange County Register editor Eugene Harbrecht, was turning onto Santa Clara Avenue from Bristol Street when two racing cars came toward him at about 11:45 a.m.

“And when they got to this intersection, they struck the black truck, which was making a left turn onto Santa Clara Avenue, knocking it out of the intersection,” Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, with the Santa Ana Police Department, said. “They struck an electrical box, blew that off the sidewalk, and then the vehicle hits the fence and gets stuck in the fence.”

After witnessing the violent crash that ended in flames, two Good Samaritans ran to pull Harbrecht out of his truck and put out the fire.

“The flames started going up and about, so at that point you just want to make sure that the guy doesn’t get engulfed in flames,” Luis Gonzalez said. “And we did everything we could to get him out.”

“The gentleman in the truck, we couldn’t see him until we broke the glass, and he was still unresponsive,” Guillermo Velazquez said. “Our biggest thing was just the flame, we noticed that the flame burst a little bit bigger as the car laid there, so my biggest concern was just getting the gentleman out of the vehicle.”

The pair successfully pulled Harbrecht out of the vehicle, but police said he died from his injuries after being taken to UC Irvine Medical Center.

“It’s horrendous. They were racing during the day, what are they trying to accomplish,” Patt Buchanan Harbrecht, the victim’s wife, said. “What’s the point of that? Don’t they realize people are gonna get hurt?”

She said she was devastated that she never got to say goodbye to her husband when he left their Santa Ana home to grab lunch.

“He’s been working at home,” she said. “I said, ‘When you take a break, I’ll bring you some lunch,’ and he said, ‘No, I’m gonna run over to Popeyes.’”

She said she saw the scene of the crash while she was returning home from running an errand.

“I still don’t, if he drove up right now, I’d believe it more than I believe this,” she said.

Buchanan Harbrecht said her husband loved the news — working at the Orange County Register for 35 years — the Los Angeles Angels, his dog and her.

“When I was going through chemo, he was always there for me,” she said of her battle with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. “Now, I won’t have anyone to reach out to, and hold his hand anymore. I guess I’m on my own. This is not right.”

Todd Harmonson, senior editor of the Register, said Harbrecht woke up early every morning to check on the big stories of the day.

“Gene was one of those people who was a newsman at heart and a journalist to his core,” Harmonson said. “It’s one thing to be a great journalist, and that’s fine. But, more important, he was just a really great man, great person and a great husband to his wife.”

Witnesses said the driver of the BMW, identified as 29-year-old Louie Robert Villa, was taken to the hospital in serious condition.

The second driver involved in the street race fled the scene, but a car matching the description was later located near the post office and the driver, identified as 24-year-old Ricardo Navarro, was taken into custody.

Buchanan Harbrecht hopes that sharing her husband’s story will make people think twice before engaging in a street race.

“Imagine it was your family,” she said. “What if you’re street racing and your mother’s in that car that you hit. How are you going to feel then?”

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Article Topic Follows: Regional News

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