A substance abuse counselor accused of crashing into a pedestrian while driving drunk, and then weaving two miles through Torrance with the fatally injured man stuck in her front windshield, was charged Tuesday with murder and other felony offenses.
Sherri Lynn Wilkins, 51, did not enter a plea during a scheduled arraignment in Torrance court, and instead was granted a continuance until Dec. 18. She is being held on $2.25 million bail, and faces life in prison if convicted because this would be her third felony.
Wilkins allegedly struck Phillip Moreno as he walked across Torrance Boulevard near Madrid Avenue at 11:25 p.m. Saturday, authorities said. Moreno, 31, was walking home from a night with friends at The Branch Office bar when he was hit so forcefully that his pants flew off, police told relatives.
Moreno's friends and family crowded Judge Thomas Sokolov's courtroom Tuesday for the scheduled arraignment. Later, they described strong feelings of gratitude toward rescue workers mixed with bitterness for Wilkins.
"We're so grateful to the people who comforted him; the people that were there put a towel on him to keep him warm," said Moreno's brother, Tony Moreno.
Phillip Moreno was the second youngest of seven siblings in a tight-knit Torrance family. Sports were his passion, and he knew the stats of all the players on his favorite teams -- the Los Angeles Lakers and Oakland Raiders.
The family is struggling to cope with their feelings about the brutal descriptions of his last minutes alive.
"People witnessed (Wilkins) driving off, swerving," said his sister, Sylvia Moreno. "It looked like she was trying to shake him off. What she did was inhumane. She wanted to leave him like a dead dog on the street. That's the hurt that we're feeling." Officials said Wilkins did not stop driving until witnesses ran after her, begging her to pull over at Crenshaw Boulevard and 182nd Street. Family members said witnesses took Wilkins' keys and detained her until police arrived.
Meanwhile, several bystanders tried to help Moreno. He had a pulse at the scene, but was pronounced dead when he reached the hospital, officials said.
Wilkins' blood-alcohol level was about twice the legal limit, authorities said.
Wilkins worked as a counselor for drug and alcohol addicts at the Twin Town Treatment Centers in Torrance. Administrators there believed she had been sober for eight years after a long addiction to heroin and alcohol.
Department of Corrections records show Wilkins was in and out of prison from 1989 to 2008.
Her convictions included burglary, using controlled substances while behind bars and petty theft. In 1994, she was sentenced to 12 years, two months in prison for a first-degree burglary conviction. She was discharged from prison on Dec. 29, 2008.
In May 2010, Wilkins fled the scene of a hit-and-run accident on Hawthorne Boulevard near 182nd Street, just blocks from her home. She slammed into a light pole there, knocking it into the street, said Patrick Sullivan, assistant city attorney in Torrance. Three cars collided into the downed pole after Wilkins drove off, Sullivan said.
Officers tracked her from the scene to her home by following a trail of fluid from her white Toyota Tacoma. She was charged with hit-and-run, and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol because officers believed she was impaired, Sullivan said.
But tests showed no alcohol and barely traceable levels of narcotics in her system, and those charges were dropped, he said. She settled out of court in a civil compromise that allowed her to pay fees and have the charge dismissed.
Wilkins now faces one count each of murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence and causing injury, driving with a blood-alcohol-content level of 0.08 or higher, and leaving the scene of an accident.
After Tuesday's scheduled arraignment, family members described feeling both numb and angry at the sight of Wilkins.
"I was kind of hoping the guilty verdict would come today, but I didn't expect it," said Tony Moreno. "I would have rather it been over with." Of his feelings toward Wilkins, he said: "You can't print the words I feel." The family anticipates filing a wrongful death civil suit against Wilkins.
Funeral plans have not been set, as Phillip Moreno's body remained at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Department on Tuesday. But a memorial fund to accept public donations toward Moreno's funeral and burial has been established on the family attorney's website at www.bhinjurylawyers.com.
Staff Writer Larry Altman contributed to this article. Follow Sandy Mazza on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sandymazza.