By James DeWeese
Guzman, 18, died Jan. 18, 2004 after being run down by three separate vehicles as she crossed Roosevelt Avenue at 111th Street early in the morning. To date, only one man – the accused driver of the final black SUV that crushed what Guzman's mother said was her still-moving body – has been arrested.Before lighting a candle and laying a bouquet of flowers on the street, Guzman's mother, Miriam Toribio, called on the police to reopen the case and pursue the drivers of the other vehicles involved in the hit-and-run. “As a mother, I think I have a right to know what happened to my daughter,” said Toribio, who now cares for Guzman's 2-year-old daughter, Laritza. “It was not an animal they killed, it was a human being,” she added. Reopening the case would also reinstate the $2,000 reward offered by police for information in connection with the accident.Toribio said that in the days preceding the accident, which she called suspicious, Guzman had been threatened. Two weeks before her death, Guzman was involved in a fight at the Olympia Urena after-hours club in Jackson Heights that ended with a man shooting a bullet that grazed her in the leg, Toribio has maintained.Raymundo Herrera, a 32-year-old chef from Long Beach, L.I., who was allegedly at the wheel of the third vehicle, is currently charged with second-degree manslaughter, reckless endangerment and fleeing the scene of an accident, according to a spokeswoman for the Queens district attorney's office. But the manslaughter charge was expected to be dropped at a later court date.”Through the course of the investigation, it was determined that the victim was already dead before the defendant struck her,” a law enforcement source said.With the manslaughter charged dismissed, Herrera will face up to seven years in jail, the spokeswoman said. State Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) said he was informed by prosecutors last week that Herrera would likely only face up to a year in jail if convicted.”That's ridiculous, and that's why we're here,” said Peralta), who organized Tuesday's candlelight vigil. He pledged to introduce legislation that would, for the first time, institute a penalty for hit-and-run drivers who run down people who are already dead. The new legislation would carry a maximum prison sentence of three to five years in jail.Meanwhile, Toribio said witnesses indicated that Guzman was still alive when she was struck by the final car.Police said Guzman was hit at around 5:32 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2004 by a black, four-door sedan speeding eastbound on Roosevelt Avenue, which propelled her body underneath the elevated No. 7 subway train tracks. Moments later, her body was crushed by a white, four-door sedan headed westbound, followed by a black sports utility vehicle, allegedly driven by Herrera, they said. Toribio has maintained that at the time a witness told police he tried to stop traffic when he saw Guzman lying in the street surrounded by a crowd of about 15 people, but that the third car accelerated instead of slowing down, running over Guzman again. “It was a year ago right here on this street that Natalie was run down by not one, not two, but three cars that ended her life,” Peralta said. “We need justice for Natalie Guzman. We need justice for Laritza and we need justice for Miriam Toribio, her mother.”Following the accident, Peralta endowed a college scholarship for Laritza with a $2,000 contribution. The fund has since grown to more than $4,000, and Peralta encouraged further donations to be made through his office.Guzman's father, 47-year-old truck driver Manuel Baez, said Lartiza remembers her mother, but is too young to understand what happened.”When she sees her picture, she says 'Mommy,'” Baez said. “She remembers that she used to carry her around and play with her.”Contributions to Laritza's college scholarship can be made by sending a check made out to “College Bound Fund/Laritza Guzman” to Peralta's district office located at 82-11 37th Ave., Suite 705, Jackson Heights, NY, 11372.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.