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Tesla Hwy. 1 crash echoes previous triple murder-suicide attempt

A screen grab from body camera footage of the California Highway Patrol helicopter team shows the Tesla that had gone over a cliff along Devil’s Slide in San Mateo County on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. Officials say the driver, 41-year-old Dharmesh Patel, intentionally drove his family off the cliff. | Courtesy CHP

A short drive from where a Southern California doctor plunged his family off a cliff in a Tesla—and miraculously survived—a similar crash unfolded two decades earlier.

Monday’s crash off a stretch of Highway 1 in San Mateo County happened about five miles from where a father similarly drove his family off a cliff in 2002. Authorities say the cases shared more than close proximity—they believe they were both intentional. 

It’s unclear why they believe 41-year-old Dharmesh Patel planned the latest crash. In 2002, the driver’s threats of taking his own life suggested some forethought.

Eddie Rapoza was accused of driving a minivan carrying his pregnant wife and 4-year-old daughter off a cliff in Moss Beach, about five miles south of the most recent incident along Highway 1.

Everyone died except for Rapoza, who said his foot got caught and he couldn’t take it off the gas pedal, court records show.

Investigators said Rapoza had a history of threatening to harm himself if his wife left him—including by driving off a cliff. Court records show he also told a detective he wanted his whole family to die.

A jury ultimately convicted Rapoza of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in 2005. He was sentenced to up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rapoza later maintained his innocence, claiming he “never intended to go off the edge of that cliff,” said Neil Rosenbaum, an attorney who represented him in a failed attempt to appeal the conviction.

“He said it was an accident,” Rosenbaum said. “‘I did not do this deliberately.’”

On Monday morning, Patel was heading south in a Tesla on Highway 1 near the Devil’s Slide when the car careened off the cliff, flipping several times before landing on the rocky beach about 250 to 300 feet below, officials said.

The white Tesla crumpled up in the crash.

Firefighters rappelled down the cliff to rescue his 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, while a helicopter rescued Patel and his wife.

First responders were shocked that the family survived.

“That actually was a hopeful moment for us,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Brian Pottenger said in a video shared on social media.

Patel lives in Pasadena and works as a physician at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in San Fernando Valley, the hospital confirmed.

He was taken to a hospital and arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and child endangerment, according to police. Once his condition improves, authorities expect to jail him in San Mateo County as prosecutors decide how to charge the case.

Mark Andrews, a California Highway Patrol spokesperson, declined to say why his agency calls the plunge an “intentional act.”

Andrews said the area has seen similar cases before, including suicides. But the crashes this week and in 2002 stand out because of the victims brought in tow.

“There’s been other incidents where it was an intentional act,” he said, “but usually not involving other members of a family.”

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