EL CAJON, Calif. -- A man accused of leading Border Patrol agents on a high-speed pursuit that ended with a crash on Interstate 8 in Boulevard, killing three of the suspected undocumented immigrants riding in his truck and injuring seven others, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving causing injury.
Luis Alberto Virgen, a 21-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Tijuana, faces 45 years to life in prison if convicted. He remains held in lieu of $3 million bail.
Virgen sped off when federal officers tried to pull over the passenger- packed white Chevrolet Silverado he was driving near the Mexican border in eastern San Diego County shortly before 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 29, according to the California Highway Patrol.
With the agents giving chase, Virgen entered Interstate 8 at Buckman Springs Road and fled to the east briefly before exiting at Ribbonwood Road and re-entering the freeway, this time headed west, the Border Patrol reported.
After fleeing for several more miles, the suspect ran over a tire-flattening spike strip that agents had laid across the roadway in his path east of Crestwood Road, according to the federal agency.
About a minute later, the Silverado -- occupied by a single passenger in the front and the rest unrestrained in the cargo bed -- veered off the interstate, went up a dirt embankment, became airborne, overturned and rolled back down the sloping roadside onto the freeway.
Virgen was the only one in the truck wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash, and the others were ejected, CHP public-affairs Officer Travis Garrow said. Two of the male passengers and the sole female member of the group died at the scene of the crash.
Paramedics took Virgen and the surviving passengers to a hospital for treatment of moderate to serious injuries, Garrow said.
Virgen will be back in court Dec. 26 for a readiness conference and Jan. 2 for a preliminary hearing.