It was going to be a hard year for the parents of Daniel Hawkins, Jacob Ivascu and Drake Ruiz, no matter what.
Two months after the three teenage boys died and three others were injured when a Temescal Valley man allegedly rammed their car off the road in January 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The arrival of COVID-19 meant the boys’ families were suddenly spending long days at home — an inescapable absence there with them.
“We choose not to be angry and to forgive.… Anger is a trap and it eats you up,” Ramona Ivascu, Jacob’s mother, said weeks ahead the scheduled arraignment of the man accused of killing her son.
“But because we choose to forgive,” she said, “does not mean that we will forget what he did and that he does not have to pay the cost or punishment for his crime.”
On Jan. 19, 2020, six boys were at the Hawkins’ house in the Temescal Valley, south of Corona, for a sleepover to celebrate Jacob’s birthday.
They spent the afternoon throwing around a football and eating junk food, then decided to play “Truth or Dare.” The dares were wholesome: Swallow a tablespoon of Tabasco or drink a gross cocktail of various things found in the fridge. Joshua Ivascu, 13, Jacob’s younger brother, was dared to do “Ding, Dong, Ditch.” They picked a nearby house because of the purple lights shining there: Whoever owned lights like those must be cool, the boys thought.
Joshua knocked on the door of the house on Mojeska Summit Road, not knowing who was inside. The other boys, wanting to make sure the resident heard them, told him to ring the doorbell.
According to the California Highway Patrol, resident Anurag Chandra was enraged by the prank. The boys piled into their Toyota Prius to get away, and Chandra chased them in his Infiniti sedan, according to the CHP. Witnesses said the Infiniti raced after the Prius on Temescal Canyon Road, before it finally slammed into the other car, hurling it into a tree.
Jacob died at the scene. Daniel and Drake died soon after at Inland Valley Medical Center in Wildomar. They were each 16 years old.
On Feb. 21, 2020, Chandra pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder, along with a special circumstance allegation of multiple murders — making him eligible for the death penalty. He’s due to be arraigned on Tuesday, April 20.
Once the pandemic hit, the Hawkins and Ivascu families were stuck at home, like millions of Americans, hyper-aware of the void in their households.
“I couldn’t stay in denial that my son’s missing,” said Craig Hawkins, Daniel’s father. “Well, we know where he is as believers, but there’s still the shock of him being gone.”
All three families are deeply religious and attend Northpoint Evangelical Free Church in Corona.
The pandemic meant the whole world grieved, even as the families mourned their own tragedy.
And COVID-19 took its toll on them as well: Alex Ivascu, Jacob and Joshua’s father, lost his father and his wife lost her brother to the disease. Craig Hawkins contracted the virus, but recovered.
“It was comforting, we felt like we were not alone in our trials,” Alex Ivascu said. “The world did change everywhere around us, not just our family.”
But as they mourned, they were together. And there were unexpected gifts amid the pain.
“For our family, COVID was actually a blessing,” Ramona Ivascu said. “We had more time together. The kids, I think, needed us and we needed them.”
Drake’s mother, Debbie Ruiz, works for an ambulance company, and worked through the pandemic.
“It kind of took the pain away from us a little bit because we had so much to focus on,” she said.
Everyone reacted to the boys’ emptied rooms in different ways.
“We haven’t made a shrine of his room, but on the other hand, I’m not ready to pack all his stuff up, either,” Craig Hawkins said.
He likes having the door open to Daniel’s room, but it pains his wife, Janet, to see it that way. So the door stays closed during the day for Janet, the morning person of the family, and is open later at night for Craig, the night owl.
A week and a half after Jacob’s funeral, his brother Joshua was scheduled to go on a school trip to Washington, D.C.
“And in the nick of time, they were able to go, because COVID had not quite settled in,” Ramona Ivascu said. As she was driving him to school where everyone was assembling for the trip, Joshua turned to her and asked if he could have his brother’s room. “I thought, I could never say no to that.”
Packing the room up was painful, but now Joshua lives in the space once occupied by the brother he had been so close to in life.
More than a year after the crash, there’s still a memorial at the tree near the intersection of Temescal Canyon Road and Trilogy Parkway.
“People still go there,” Janet Hawkins said. “We would find letters there, we’d still find, you know, stuffed animals or whatever.”
And there are virtual memorials, too.
“There’s about 800 comments on (an Instagram post) of Jake’s last trip that we took to Mexico,” Alex Ivascu said. “And that’s how the kids get to air their frustrations, they leave these comments on his page: ‘Jake, this year was (crap), you’re not missing anything.’”
Chandra’s alleged extreme reaction still shocks and baffles the boys’ parents.
“They weren’t throwing rocks. They weren’t threatening him. Simply ‘Ding, Dong, Ditch,’ wait until the door was open, then ran to the car and drove away,” Alex Ivascu said.
According to evidence presented by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office at Chandra’s preliminary hearing, Chandra chased the boys’ Prius in his Infiniti down Temescal Canyon Road. His car sideswiped the front of the Prius, and both vehicles stopped. The Prius then backed up and made a U-turn, driving back away from Chandra. Chandra then reportedly made a U-turn in his Infiniti, chasing the boys back the other way.
“There were a number of steps,” Craig Hawkins said. “At each one, he had time to think, reflect upon what he was doing.”
According to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, Chandra’s Infiniti got up to 99 mph — the two-lane Temescal Canyon Road has a 40 mph speed limit — before his car rear-ended the Prius, causing the car to crash into a tree.
“It’s like a bullet,” Ramona Ivascu said.
Just weeks before, she had warned of something exactly like this happening, when she was driving Jacob and Joshua to school.
“I said ‘your car is a weapon,’” she said. “‘You know, no matter how mad you get at someone, or you need to pull over and chill out, because you can change someone’s life forever, and it will change your life as well.’”
The families’ shared faith — and their forgiveness of Chandra — doesn’t mean they don’t want justice for their sons. Ruiz has sent a Bible and religious books to Chandra in jail and wrote him a letter late last month.
“I felt like I had to tell him what my feelings were, how much we lost,” she said. “Because he still hasn’t really taken accountability.”
According to Ruiz, Chandra’s lawyer has said that he “feels bad for what happened.”
“Not that he feels bad that he did it,” she said.
Chandra’s attorney, David Wohl, declined to comment.
“We’re going to litigate this in the court, not in the media,” he said.
The one-year wait to get to the arraignment this month likely won’t be the last delay in the legal case.
“They warned us, this could take two, three years because of COVID,” Janet Hawkins said. “Things have gotten backed up in the system.”
And so they wait, comforted by their faith.
“It’s easy to be religious … when life is wonderful and easy,” Craig Hawkins said. But when something as awful as the boys’ death happens, “you have a chance to apply your faith and to live and see if it’s real. And if God can’t get us through this, he’s not really worth much.”
But each family member wrestles with the grief, pain, faith and forgiveness in their own way.
“My wife, she grieves differently than I do,” Craig Hawkins said. “And I can’t put my style of grieving on her and vice versa. And, as you well know, statistically, the majority of couples who go through this, they split up over this issue. We’re hoping that it helps us actually grow closer together, and stronger. And I need to extend grace to her and not expect her to approach this like I do. I handle things differently.”
Ruiz said the tragedy has made her more empathetic to the pain of others.
“I find myself checking on other people a lot more than I would have before, just because I can sympathize with their pain,” she said.
But even as they wait for justice, their faith tells all three families that their story will end happily, with a reunion with their boys in heaven.
“One day, we were sitting at our kitchen table, and we’re talking about the Bible and discussing something,” Ramona Ivascu said. “And my 13-year-old said, ‘Mom, for us, heaven is non-negotiable. We’re all going, no matter what.’”
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