Abcarian: Road rage horror story, a child’s murder, lessons for us all

Abcarian: Road rage horror story, a child’s murder, lessons for us all

The killing of 6-year-old Aiden Leos on an Orange County freeway is a haunting and cautionary tale. The series of events that led to the death of the little boy presents an object lesson in why drivers should never, ever overreact when they perceive they are being disrespected on the road. Make this your mantra, folks: Just let it go. Just let it go.

On May 21, 2021, Aiden’s mom, Joanna Cloonan, left their Costa Mesa home to take her son to school at Calvary Chapel Pre-School in Yorba Linda. They were driving north on the 55 Freeway in their Chevy Sonic, Aiden strapped into his car seat in back.

What happened next that morning was stupid, unnecessary and shameful, and a horrific reminder that getting into tiffs while driving can have tragic, ruinous consequences.

According to the Orange County Register, a Volkswagen Golf driven by Wynne Lee sped up behind Cloonan in the carpool lane, sped around her, then moved back into the lane in front of Cloonan’s car, cutting Cloonan off and brake-checking her. “Lee then flashed a peace sign that the mother took as less than genuine,” the report said.

‘Acting crazy’

Instead of letting it go, Cloonan angrily pulled up next to the VW and flipped the couple off. Big mistake.

Lee’s passenger, Marcus Eriz, reached into the back seat for his gun.

“She remembered Eriz smiling at her from the passenger seat,” wrote my colleague Christopher Goffard, “then hearing a loud sound as she pulled away. It was a single bullet from Eriz’s gun, passing through the trunk and through her son’s body.”

The bullet hit Aiden from the back, ripping through his liver and lung, before piercing his heart and exiting his body. He bled to death on the freeway shoulder while his mother cried hysterically and a CHP officer tried to save him.

Last week, Eriz, 26, was rightfully convicted of second-degree murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle. The jury took only two hours to decide. He faces up to 40 years in prison and is to be sentenced April 12.

Lee, his girlfriend, will be tried later on lesser charges.

The almost unspeakable irony at the heart of this case is what Eriz told investigators about why he was carrying a gun in the first place: “People have been acting crazy around the freeway.”

A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

Every 16 hours

Last March, the nonprofit group Everytown for Gun Safety reported that road rage “shooting deaths and injuries continue to pile up” even though the spike in gun violence that occurred during the height of the COVID pandemic had subsided. The group’s research and policy arm analyzed gun violence data and determined that the number of road rage injuries and violent incidents involving guns has increased every year since 2018. “These incidents translate to a person being shot and either injured or killed in a road rage incident in 2022 every 16 hours.” Generally speaking, states with the most lax gun laws have the highest rate of gun-related road rage incidents.

In May, a young man described by his friends as a music-loving surfer from Jordan was killed in Marina del Rey after getting out of his car at a stoplight to talk to a driver who had cut off the vehicle he was riding in with a friend. The driver blew a hole in his chest and, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, there has been no arrest.

In December, 4-year-old Gor Adamyan was killed in Lancaster after his parents, on the way to the grocery store, accidentally cut off a car whose driver then began following the family and harassed them before shooting at the car. Gor died in what has been described as a “hail of bullets.” The suspected gunman, Byron Burkhart, 29, has been charged with murder, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied car. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Power struggles

Anyone who has ever gotten behind the wheel in city or freeway traffic has experienced road rage at some point — theirs or someone else’s.

“It could happen to any one of us,” said Orange County prosecutor Todd Spitzer, as he commented on Eriz’s conviction. “We’ve all gotten upset at other motorists; other motorists have gotten upset at us. I’ve thrown some gestures around myself.”

If I am being honest, so have I. I do some of my best swearing behind the wheel. I may occasionally drive aggressively — say, gunning it to get ahead of a driver who decides to speed up instead of let me in when I am changing lanes. I also have what are undoubtedly imaginary power struggles with other drivers all the time, which make me ashamed of myself. I sometimes catch myself wondering how younger, less mature and/or testosterone-fueled drivers restrain themselves when I, an older, presumably calmer driver, can get so teed off behind the wheel.

But I don’t drive to punish. I have never braked in front of someone to teach them a lesson. I’ve never rolled down my window to yell at anyone. I would never take the chance, because, as Eriz put it, people act crazy around the freeway.

AAA, the membership organization for people who drive, offers tips for avoiding road rage trouble: Do not make eye contact with angry drivers; don’t make hand gestures; don’t respond to aggression with aggression; and stay in your car if you are physically confronted.

By far their best piece of advice is this: “Be tolerant and forgiving. Assume that it’s not personal. The other driver may just be having a really bad day.”

Or, I would add, may just be carrying a gun.

Robin Abcarian is a Los Angeles Times columnist. ©2024 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.