The family of Lau Van Huynh — the 78-year-old Murrieta man arrested in connection with the hit-and-run death of Simon Chavez — impeded authorities’ criminal investigation, thus proving he is a flight risk, a prosecutor alleged during a bail reduction hearing Friday morning in Santa Barbara Superior Court.
Chavez, a 22-year-old Santa Barbara resident, was walking in the southbound lanes of Highway 101 when he was struck and killed around 1 a.m. on January 15. No vehicle stopped. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said Friday a toxicology report for Chavez was not yet available.
Prosecutor Sanford Horowitz said authorities were able to use security footage from the Chumash Casino — Huynh had apparently spent 13 hours there with his wife prior to the accident — to track him to his Murrieta home.
When a CHP investigator made a house call, Huynh’s daughter answered the door but allegedly denied that she knew Lau Van Hyunh. She also denied knowing anything about a white Hyundai. But walking away from the home, the officer apparently spotted the Hyundai through a garage window. A search warrant was issued, and the vehicle was seized.
Horowitz said the car had been washed “in an attempt to destroy evidence,” but that there were human hair fibers still lodged in parts of the exterior. Damage to the front of the car was consistent with a vehicle-versus-pedestrian collision, Sgt. Andrew Chapman said in testimony Friday, and evidence at the scene of the collision matched damage to the vehicle.
Horowitz also alleged that Huynh was planning to go to Las Vegas, and neighbors purportedly told authorities Huynh and his wife had packed bags and told them they were headed to Vietnam.
Huynh son, Viet Huynh, denied this. Viet Huynh said he and his siblings would’ve known if his parents were traveling internationally because he lives with them and would’ve made the travel arrangements. He said the trip to Vegas was not an attempt to flee, but a trip they had already talked about and planned.
Chavez was in between the highway’s number two and three lanes when he was hit by the Hyundai, which Horowitz said was driven by Huynh with his wife in the passenger seat. “Neither party called law enforcement,” Horowitz said. “Neither party called 911. Neither party stopped the car.”
Horowitz said Huynh had back surgery less than a month ago and was prescribed to take a painkiller four times a day, which Horowitz suggested could have impaired his driving. Horowitz noted another driver, who was sober, saw Chavez on the highway before the accident and was able to slow down and avoid hitting him.
Sgt. Chapman also testified Friday that it appeared when Huynh came to the CHP station with his son that the son used “slight of hand” to delete text messages from a phone that was ultimately taken under a search warrant. A forensic look at the phone confirmed this, Chapman said.
All of this information, Horowitz said, was enough to show that Huynh is a flight risk, one of the top criteria for holding someone on a higher bail.
But Huynh’s attorney Peter Chang said there were many assertions of fact that have yet to be proven in the case. He noted Hyunh had lived in California for 20 years, was advanced in age, had a clean criminal history and driving record, and possessed strong family ties to the state. He also noted Huynh is charged with a single count of hit-and-run.
While Horowitz asked Judge Clifford Anderson to keep bail at $1 million, Anderson lowered it to $200,000, an amount still too high for the family to pay, apparently. Should he post bail, Huynh would have to turn in his passport, enroll in an electronic monitoring program, refrain from driving, and stay out of Santa Barbara County except for court appearances.
Huynh will be back in court later this month for a preliminary hearing during which the judge will determine whether there is enough evidence for him to stand trial.