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'I saw the car, still going forward'

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Forest Grove wrestler Christian Guerra recovers from injuries suffered in a bizarre Las Vegas rampage


NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Christian Guerra, a freshman at Pacific University, is back at his Cornelius home, recovering from injuries he received when a woman drove her car onto a crowded Las Vegas sidewalk Dec. 20, killing one person and hurting dozens of others. None of them saw the car coming.

Pacific University freshman Christian Guerra was walking along a sidewalk on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, Dec. 20, when he heard a loud crash and people screaming.

The next thing he knew, he was on the ground.

“I got hit from behind,” said the 18-year-old, a member of the Pacific men’s wrestling team and a 2015 graduate of Forest Grove High School. Knocked from his feet, Guerra said he got up right away — “and my only thought was, ‘What just happened?’ I was in a lot of shock.

“Then I saw the car, still going forward.”

Guerra and three other Boxer wrestlers and coaches — all of whom are recovering from non-life threatening injuries — flew home to Oregon Dec. 21, a day after they were struck by a car that inexplicably drove up on the sidewalk near the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Pacific wrestler Ricky Ridela of Waipahu, Hawaii, and assistant coaches Bruce Balcita of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and Eric Harder of Bethesda, Md., were also hit by the car driven by Lakeisha Nicole Holloway, who is now in police custody.

Ridela and Balcita are “both just sore and have some scapes and bruises,” Guerra said Wednesday. Harder is “recovering but still hurting.”

The Boxers were in Nevada for a college wrestling tournament called the Wartburg Desert Duals. Guerra, a Class 6A state champion wrestler at FGHS, suffered a deep cut to the back of his head, which doctors repaired with staples.

Last Tuesday he was resting at his parents’ home in Cornelius after being diagnosed with a concussion. Despite a headache, “I’m doing OK,” he said, “but my legs are really sore.”

Mary Ann Mendoza-Guerra, Christian’s mother, said she learned of the bizarre and scary situation when her husband’s cell phone rang shortly after 6:30 p.m. the night of the incident and a teammate of Christian’s described to Jose Guerra what had happened. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The days since his parents picked Christian Guerra up at the airport have been spent at home and in doctors offices, getting X-rays and a CAT scan and making sure he's on the road to recovery.

“We just kept asking, ‘Is Christian OK? Is Christian OK?’” Mary Ann said.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking being here and not being there.”

Their middle son (the two others are 21 and 17) couldn’t talk at the time, added Mary Ann. “He was too nervous and scared. It’s hard to describe what that feels like, but we’re just thankful he’s home and he’s safe.”

Woman reports hitting people

The crash happened as members of the Pacific wrestling team — composed of 19 student-athletes, coaches and a trainer — were walking back to their hotel after seeing a movie. They were spread out over 30 to 40 yards, according to Severin Walsh, head wrestling coach at Pacific.

Suddenly Holloway, 24, appeared to intentionally drive her car onto the crowded sidewalk and “drove right through the center of our whole team,” Walsh said. “Really, it’s a miracle that more of our people weren’t hurt.”

Authorities said Holloway — coincidentally, a former Portland resident — swerved onto the sidewalk several times, mowing down dozens of people and killing a woman from Arizona.

Holloway finally stopped, then left the scene and contiued on to a nearby casino, where she asked a security guard to call police because she had just hit a number of people.

Holloway, whose 3-year-old daughter was in the back seat of the car the whole time, was arrested and faces charges of murder with a deadly weapon, leaving the scene of an accident and child abuse or neglect.

“We want to have compassion for this person — a local girl who made a terrible decision,” Walsh said. “We want to have compassion for her family and the young child who was with her too.”

Trainer provides aid

Pacific spokesman Joe Lang said university athletic trainer Eric Pitkanen came to the aid of several people sprawled on the sidewalk immediately after the incident. “He was essentially a first responder to help others in addition to our team members,” Lang said.

All the injured members of the Pacific group are expected to make full recoveries, he added. In addition to Guerra’s concussion, their injuries included cuts, scratches and bruised bones and ribs.

Instead of competing in the one-day wrestling tournament Monday, Dec. 21, the team cut the trip short and returned to Oregon. Practices will resume Monday, Jan. 4.

Guerra’s former Forest Grove Vikings coach, Frank Johnson (now head wrestling coach at Warner Pacific College), also happened to be there for the tournament. He was in his room at the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel when he got a phone call from Mary Ann, telling him what had happened and asking him to find Christian.

“As you can imagine, she was frantic,” said Johnson, a close family friend. He called Christian but got no answer. Then he got a text from Christian with a photo of the spot where paramedics had treated him just outside the Paris Hotel.

“I ran out front and showed the picture to a gentleman from the Flamingo, and he told me where to go,” Johnson recalled. “When I got there an officer took me right to Christian and I put him on the phone with his mom.”

Johnson rode in the ambulance with Christian and stayed with him for six hours at the hospital until he was released at 12:45 a.m.

“It was comforting to know someone familiar to Christian was with him,” said Mary Ann. She and Jose both work at FGHS — Mary Ann as the main-office secretary and Jose as a security guard.

Mary Ann had been nervous about Christian going to Las Vegas, said Johnson, who had seen the family the Saturday before. “She asked me to take care of Christian if anything happened,” Johnson said. “I told her there was nothing to worry about. Must have been a mother’s intuition.”

Life-changing occurrence

From what Johnson has gleaned from Pacific eyewitnesses, “it was a horrific scene” on the Vegas sidewalk. “It’s going to be more difficult for the student-athletes and coaches to get over what they saw than their physical injuries.”

“It was a pretty scary deal,” said Walsh. “A surreal deal. We’re the lucky ones. We got out of it relatively unscathed. We were able to celebrate the holidays with our families. A lot of people were hurt so much worse than our folks.”

Jose and Mary Ann have been paying close attention to news reports speculating about Holloway’s lethal behavior.

“We feel like it just had to be intentional,” said Mary Ann, “but I can’t imagine someone could do that. It’s just crazy.”

“It’s important for us to not hold onto a grudge or bitterness,” Walsh said, “because if we do we become victims of the crime twice.”

A post on the Pacific University Wrestling Facebook page Dec. 22 stated: “We would like to thank everyone for all of your love and support over the past 24-plus hours. We are all are safe and accounted for. We were the lucky ones, as there are families tonight that are hurting for their loved ones. Thank you again and please keep the victims and families still burdened by grief in your thoughts and prayers.”

For Christian, the actions Holloway took last week have him re-evaluating what’s important in life. Even though he expects to wrestle in the future and continue pursuing a degree in exercise science at Pacific, he said he realizes now that life can change in a split second.

“It’s crazy. I think about how some things like that are unavoidable — how the person who was killed could easily have been me,” said Christian, who hopes to become a physical therapist. “I’m going to be more grateful for everything.”