A young man who allegedly drove under the influence and crashed his car near Torrey Pines State Beach, killing two of his passengers and seriously injuring two others, was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges that include murder.
Christopher Ray Schmittel, 20, is accused of crashing a 2020 Subaru WRX through a metal guardrail on Torrey Pines Road just before 11 p.m. on April 25, 2022, causing the deaths of Joshua Manzanares and Johnny Punzalan, both 19.
The victims were thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene, according to police.
Schmittel and two other passengers in the car were hospitalized with serious injuries, police said.
Prosecutors say the car reached speeds of over 120 mph just before the crash and Schmittel was driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, Xanax and psychedelic mushrooms.
One of the surviving passengers, Aaron McCray, testified at a preliminary hearing on Tuesday that he and the other men left the Riverside County city of Wildomar earlier that day, with Schmittel behind the wheel.
McCray testified that Schmittel drove as fast as 110 mph on the winding Ortega Highway and was repeatedly swerving into oncoming traffic in order to avoid having to slow down on the highway’s curves.
Once on southbound Interstate 5 heading toward San Diego, Schmittel drove up to 140 mph, McCray said.
At some point the group stopped at a beach and drank alcohol, and McCray said he saw Schmittel consume mushrooms. A blood draw later taken from Schmittel indicated marijuana and Xanax were also in his system, and he had a blood-alcohol level of around .08%, which is the legal driving limit in California for people over the age of 21.
McCray testified that the last thing he remembered before waking up in the crumpled vehicle was one of the other passengers asking Schmittel if he was “good to drive,” to which Schmittel replied, “Yeah.” McCray was seated in the center backseat of the car between Manzanares and Punzalan and he testified that when he woke up, neither man was next to him.
Officer Dominic Amato of the San Diego Police Department, one of the officers who responded to the crash scene, said that after the car struck the center median, then rammed through the guardrail, it dropped about 20 to 25 feet to the beach below, rolled over and ended up at least 50 yards from the roadway.
Amato testified that debris — including cans of alcohol — was strewn from the road to the site of the mangled car.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, defense attorney Terry Allen asked San Diego Superior Court Judge Aaron Katz to dismiss the murder charges and argued a gross vehicular manslaughter charge was a more appropriate principle count.
But Deputy District Attorney Hailey Williams said Schmittel nearly hit multiple cars during a four-hour drive from Riverside County to San Diego and “was on full notice of the dangers of his driving following near miss after near miss that day.”
In binding Schmittel over on the murder counts, Katz said he was “struck by the sheer callousness of Mr. Schmittel, the manner in which he drove this vehicle” and believed Schmittel “had absolutely no care or concern about other peoples’ lives.”
City News Service contributed to this article.