An October, 2019 photo shows Jacob Ivascu and Sergio Campusano sitting on the shoulders of Drake Ruiz and Daniel Hawkins during a youth event organized by Northpoint Evangelical Free Church of Corona, California. (Photo: Photo provided by Brent Howard, Northpoint Evangelical Free Church of Corona)
Craig Hawkins’ last memory of his son, Daniel, is a happy one.
He remembers the 16-year-old boy tossing a football with friends from church. Hours before, the group had gleefully planned a sleepover, something they hadn’t done in months.
Hawkins left his Corona, California, home Sunday evening for plans in Los Angeles County before the tragedy unfolded.
Authorities say that around 10 p.m., one of the boys rang the doorbell of Anurag Chandra, then ran to a waiting Toyota Prius. Investigators have called it a “doorbell ditch” dare.
There were six boys in the car: Daniel, his 13-year-old brother Joshua and four friends.
Chandra, 42, chased the Prius in his Infinity Q50, officials said.
He bore down at a high speed and rammed the car, causing the Prius to spin out of control and slam into a tree on the side of the road, California Highway Patrol officer Juan Quintero said.
Murder charges: Corona man charged in alleged ramming case that killed three
Three 16-year-olds — Daniel, Jacob Ivascu and Drake Ruiz — died in the crash. Joshua and two other boys survived with injuries.
In the days after officials announced murder charges against Chandra, family and church leaders remember the boys as a tight-knit group of committed Christians — goofy boys who loved sports, video games and their youth group.
That’s why Craig Hawkins wasn’t surprised by the impromptu sleepover. When his son asked “Dad … can they come over tonight?” his immediate answer was “of course.”
He said the boys’ plans included junk food and — of course — video games.
“I just remember the joy of them beaming from ear-to-ear that we said yes,” Hawkins told USA TODAY on Saturday.
That kind of reaction was typical for the teens: “They relished living … life itself was celebratory,” Hawkins said. He remembers being in awe at how the boys could make something as mundane as eating food into a silly video.
Even in a youth group that typically has about 80 teenagers, that joy was evident, said Taylor Mendoza — pastor of student ministries for Northpoint Church.
While the teens — who all regularly attended the youth group — were often quiet together, about two years ago, they made quite an impression by performing a song from the Fortnite video game during a lip sync battle.
“Everybody was on the ground laughing,” Mendoza told USA TODAY.
Mendoza’s memories of the boys stretched back years; he said the boys were like brothers. He recalls his first major conversation with Daniel when the boy was in seventh grade and just joining the youth group.
They went to Panera Bread for a chat, and Mendoza remembers his first impression: “This is a kid who can think well.” Daniel was “soft and tender toward others” and receptive to learning more about Christian teachings.
Now, Mendoza is among a church family trying to apply those beliefs amid terrible sadness.
“It feels like a nightmare … but a nightmare I’m not waking up from,” he said. He joins many others in the church, including grieving father Craig Hawkins, in wanting justice — but not vengeance.
The Bible teaches that Christians should love their enemies, and Brent Howard, a Northpoint small group leader who had several of the boys in his group, says he hopes the suspect finds salvation.
“It doesn’t seem real,” he said. “You hear tragedies like this happen in the news … you don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”
For now, the church is rallying around the survivors and the families of the victims.
Craig Hawkins said that has taken many practical forms: Church members have cleaned their house, cooked meals and greeted Joshua when he returned home from the hospital.
Hawkins said he’s heard from many supportive parents this week. “They realize this could happen to them — to their children, their grandchildren,” he said.
The teens were simply playing “ding dong ditch; didn’t we all do that?”
Contributing: Marie McCain, Palm Springs Desert Sun; The Associated Press
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