One Tuesday night in August, Angel Flores dropped off his fiancée, Leslie Salazar, on Carrillo Street 20 minutes before he sped 94 miles an hour down Cliff Drive, slamming his 1997 Lexus sedan into a curb, fire hydrant, and tree trunk.
Flores and two friends in the backseat — Daniella Hearn, 19, and her boyfriend Ben Rubio, 28 — died at the scene. Michael Mendoza, who is 29, barely survived. (Mendoza and Flores were wearing seatbelts; Hearn and Rubio were not.)
Mendoza did not know the others in the car very well. “I am always walking around town,” he said. He would run into Hearn downtown; he had met Flores once before. He cannot remember why he was driving around with them that night. “I don’t remember the stay at the hospital,” he added. “I don’t remember people coming to see me. It does suck, but if I did remember everything, I don’t know how I’d really feel right now.”
He does, however, feel constant pain. “I can’t lie on my sides. The whole back of my head still hurts,” he said. “I can’t work.” Perhaps more painful, Mendoza said he has received hateful Facebook messages from strangers since the night of the accident: “Why didn’t you die and they survive?” he was asked. He said, “They are mad at me for being alive.”
But most anger has been directed toward the driver Flores, whose blood-alcohol content was 0.20, more than twice the legal limit, police reported last week. “I feel like [people] are making him a murderer,” said his fiancée, Salazar, who dropped by The Santa Barbara Independent offices last week with her baby girl, Genisys, born four weeks prematurely on September 5. The couple also has an 18-month-old son, Angel Jr., who goes by A.J. “I feel like I have to defend him and tell his story,” she said.
Flores, who was 24, grew up in Orcutt, raised mainly by his grandmother. At age 6, he lost his mom to bone cancer; his dad was in and out of prison. His older brother, Miguel, now 34, said Angel grew up in his footsteps: “I was kind of self-absorbed, getting in drugs and alcohol. He grew up watching that.” They were “garbage-pail kids,” using whatever drugs flowed through town, he said. At Righetti High, Angel Flores got into fights and broke the law; he wound up at Los Prietos Boys Camp.
While locked up, Flores read the Bible and embraced Christianity, his brother said, and later checked himself into the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. “He influenced me by his actions and how much he had changed. It’s weird because I am the older brother, but it made me want to pursue the life I live now,” said Miguel Flores, who has been clean for four years and works the graveyard shift at a sober-living facility in Oxnard.
Because of his criminal record and health issues, Angel Flores struggled to find work, his brother said. He lived on friends’ couches and eventually landed a job at the North American Fire Hose Corporation. “As a recovering addict, he and I just took it day by day,” Salazar said.
August 9 would have been his grandmother’s birthday, Salazar related, but she had died the year before. Flores was emotional that day, she said, and drank some beers. “We’re not minimizing the alcohol intake, but due to their history with drug use, we are kind of relieved there was no drugs in his system,” Salazar said of his death.
“Despite Angel’s choices that night, Angel was Dani’s savior several times in the weeks leading up to the accident, for no reason other than to be a nice guy,” said Robin Unander, an attorney who took in Daniella Hearn’s one-year-old baby boy, Lukas.
Salazar remembered Flores as funny, free-spirited, and a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Even at 24 years old, she added, “He just knew what he wanted — a family of his own. He knew what it was to not have a mother or father. This is what hurts the most.”
With two children to raise, Salazar continues to approach life one day at a time. “Angel taught me how to survive with the dollar in my pocket,” she said. “So I think I’ll be good.”
She also continues to bring flowers to the site of the accident on Cliff Drive. “I didn’t die that night,” she said, “but it sure feels like I did.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to benefit Flores’s fiancée and children. Find it by searching Leslie Salazar, angels in need at GoFundMe.com.