Hearing will decide if Karr goes to trial in fiery highway deaths of 5 of 6 members of a family in 2007

A driver who witnessed part of a fiery crash that killed five people on Highway 101 nearly 19 months ago testified Thursday that the young man charged in the case "flew past" him just moments before the rear-end collision in stop-and-go traffic.

The testimony came in the first day of a preliminary hearing for Ryan Karr, 27, who is facing felony and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges in the deaths of five of six members of a family who were headed north on the highway in their Honda Civic.

Five of the six occupants of the Civic were killed in the Jan. 19, 2007, crash: Maria Lopez Camacho, 54; Fernando Flores Carlos, 7; Almadelia Mendera-Basurto, 16; and Edith Carlos Medina, 23, all of Windsor; and Carmina Solorio, 23, of Mexico. The only survivor, Christian Flores Carlos, then 4, was severely burned.

Karr, who was not seriously injured in the crash, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is free on bail.

Shortly after the collision, Karr told CHP officers he was distracted momentarily before his Mitsubishi Eclipse struck the Civic, which caught fire and trapped the six people inside. Officers said at the time there was no indication of alcohol involvement.

The case has elicited strong emotions from Sonoma County residents. Many sympathize with the victims, but wonder if the outcome would have been different had the compact car not been loaded with six people.

Others believe Karr committed an understandable mistake, yet some say a Latino whose actions led to the deaths of five whites wouldn't have been free for a year before charges were filed.

In court Thursday, Francisco Castro, 28, testified that he was heading north on 101 south of Airport Boulevard about 6 p.m. when he noticed the Eclipse approaching him quickly from behind after both of them had broken out of a traffic jam.

"He just flew right by me," he said. "I remember thinking, 'I hope he slows down. He's got to slow down.' . . . He never slowed down. He just rear-ended that vehicle." He estimated the Eclipse was traveling at 60 to 70 mph and that he was traveling at between 40 and 50 mph.

Castro testified that the family's car was stopped or moving very slowly in the fast lane when the Eclipse struck from behind.

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