The jury and all charges were dismissed last week in the vehicular manslaughter case brought by The People against Ms. Helen A. Leslie. Ms. Leslie is the very picture of a retired schoolteacher, a little old lady living with her two little dogs in Brooktrails where, like as not, her neighbors are indoor marijuana growers. The subdivision northwest of Willits garners police calls out of all proportion to its population, and one day the police calls had the retired schoolteacher as their subject.
Keith Faulder represented Ms. Leslie. Faulder has become inland Mendocino County's go-to guy if you're in serious trouble. The little old school teacher was in serious trouble. The case was filed against her by the DA only after they learned that survivors of the woman who died in the accident, Ms. Sandra Lee Young, were bringing a wrongful death suit against Ms. Leslie.
Why the two legal actions against the retired teacher?
Because Ms. Leslie was eating a Danish while driving. She choked on the pastry, lost control of her car and hit Ms. Young’s car head-on. And never mind that Young was already soused by 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning because it’s irrelevant; drunk or sober she was in her own lane, and — hell’s bells — Mendocino County, land of intoxicants, is “awash in alcohol,” and almost everyone is stoned on one thing or another at any given hour. That random car you might hit is as likely as not piloted by someone under the influence, even if it’s only180 proof sanctimony.
The prosecutor in the case, Joshua Rosenfeld, was forbidden by his superiors to talk about the case, so this reporter went up the ladder, rung-rung-rung, to Chief Deputy DA Paul Sequiera where I learned that eating pastry while driving was a damnable form of negligence, and it was important to make a point here, even though the DA wasn’t seeking any jail time, and darned if the defense wasn't planning to argue “it [the accident] was an act of God.”
Sequiera made it clear this case was going before a jury.
Monday was taken up in jury selection and the evidence presented on Tuesday morning.
The whole show was over that afternoon.
Deputy DA Rosenfeld outlined the People’s case in his opening remarks.
“On May26th, 2011, Ms. Leslie left Calpella, headed for her home in Brooktrails. On the way, she stopped at a convenience store and bought some pastry and iced tea. She then headed up Sherwood Road — which is a narrow, winding, forested road. It was also damp because it had been raining earlier that morning. As she was driving, she was eating a pastry and she choked on the pastry and coughed, taking her eyes off the road.
“Her vehicle veered off the roadway and when she looked up she saw a telephone pole. She jerked the wheel to avoid hitting the telephone pole, came across both lanes and hit the car driven by Sandra Lee Young. She hit Ms. Young’s car with sufficient force to drive the hood of Young’s car back completely. The violence of the collision was enough to fracture Ms. Young’s sternum and tear the aorta of her heart, killing her very quickly.”
Mr. Rosenfeld paced resolutely along the jury box a moment before adding:
“The evidence will show that Ms. Leslie acted negligently, and when it is over I will be asking you to hold her accountable. Thank you.”
Mr. Faulder took his turn.
He said, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I’m going to introduce you to Ms. Helen Leslie.”
He turned to Ms. Leslie who shyly said hello, to which the jurors responded in kind. She had tried to rise from her chair, but Faulder bade her remain seated, being as she is somewhat lame and moves along on a cane with obvious difficulty. Then Faulder began his case.
“Mr. Rosenfeld has given you his take on what happened that tragic day, but you must remember that Mr. Rosenfeld wasn’t there… and neither was officer Hickey. What happened — and what I believe the evidence will show — is that it was not negligence, but a tragic accident that happened that day. It was wet; it had been raining and, true, Ms. Leslie was choking and coughing. When this happened she started pulling over to the side of the road. There was lots of green grass growing there from all the rain, and what no one could see was that the ground was saturated and water had pooled in places. So when she put on the breaks she lost control of the vehicle. And it all happened so fast — a couple of blinks of the eye — and her car went into the on-coming traffic. It was a tragic accident and nothing more. When you have heard all of the evidence I’m sure you’ll come back with a verdict that that is all it was. Thank you.”
DDA Rosenfeld called his first witness, Ryan Bombini who had been flown in from Anchorage, Alaska, where he works for the US Post Office. But the impressive young man grew up in Mendocino County before he went to war in Afghanistan. Bombini was the first person on the scene, and if there was any chance of saving Ms. Young, he was the one to do it. He'd been a combat medic in the war.
“I was driving south on Sherwood Road, and when I came around a curve I saw the collision just a few seconds after it happened; there was still dust in the air.”
“Did you see Ms. Leslie?”
“Yes. She had left her vehicle and run up to the other vehicle and saw what happened to the driver, and was running back to her own vehicle in a state of shock and horror.”
“Did you see what happened to the other driver?”
"She was in a small, older 90's car, a female driver, slumped down in the seat. She was not conscious. I was a medic in the Army and had just got back from Afghanistan, so I knew what had to be done.”
“What did you do?”
“The first thing was to open the door to get a quick assessment of the situation. Then I flagged down another driver to help me get her out and start CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation). I knew I needed help to get her out properly. You have to hold the neck and head to move a critically injured person so as not to cause more serious injuries. She was not conscious, not breathing, and her lips were turning blue from lack of oxygen.”
Mr. Bombini continued giving Young CPR until the paramedics arrived. He'd gotten no response. The paramedics came and took over. Still, no response.
Sandra Lee Young was gone.
Defense attorney Faulder had no questions.
Rena Trimble was called. She is a paramedic with Ukiah Ambulance. She said she arrived on the scene of the accident a little after 11am.
“I recall seeing a vehicle off to the side of the road. There was one patient, and I was told she wasn’t conscious or breathing. She was still trapped in the vehicle and they [Bombini and the other motorist, helping Bombini] wanted to get her out — her foot was stuck, as I recall. CPR had been started and I was working with Jeff Evans, another paramedic, and we decided to try an I.O.”
“What is an I.O.?”
“It’s an intraossiosis infusion.”
“Oh,” Rosenfeld said blankly.
“The I.O. was unsuccessful,” Ms. Trimble continued. “When somebody’s heart has stopped we put a tube down the esophagus and infuse epinephrine — we attempted that and still there was no breathing, no pulse, and the pupils were fixed and dilated… a sign of no life.”
“A flat line on the systolic.”
“What does that mean?”
“It is an indication of internal injuries that are, um… well, irreversible.”
“What did you do then?”
“We called the coroner.”
“Did you have any conversation with the other driver?”
“After we transported her to the hospital, yes. She didn’t know the other patient was dead.”
“Did she tell you what caused the accident?”
“As I recall, she said she either sneezed or coughed and went into the other lane.”
Mr. Faulder rose and sort of bowed, with his fingertips resting on the defense table. He said, “Did Ms. Leslie — did she ask about the other driver?”
“Oh my, yes. Many times.”
“But you decided not to tell her?”
“That’s true, yes.”
“She was so distraught …I just decided not to.”
California Highway Patrol Officer Robert Hickey was called. He’s a rookie out of the Garberville CHP Office, which is actually [physically] in Redway. Redway is two miles from Garberville; everyone treats Redway as a suburb of Garberville.
Officer Hickey was on duty at what’s called the CHP POST Office in Laytonville.
Hickey said he has investigated “an untold number of accidents.” He estimates perhaps as many as seven to ten in the course of a month, any given month, and in both his plural years of service he has been involved in the investigation of five fatalities. The one resulting in Ms. Young’s death was his second fatality. As he arrived at the scene of the fatal Sherwood Road collision he noted the speed limit was posted at 45 MPH.
“Did you make a note of the weather conditions, as well, Officer Hickey?”
“It was overcast and had been raining, but the pavement was mostly dry. There was no standing water on the roadway.”
“What did you observe when you arrived?”
“There were multiple emergency vehicles present, and two ‘involved vehicles’, one with major front-end damage.”
DDA Rosenfeld produced some photographs of the scene and put them on a screen at the front of the courtroom. He then had Officer Hickey describe what the photos depicted. The first one showed where Ms. Leslie’s vehicle, which Hickey termed “vehicle one,” had left the right side of the roadway.
“Yes,” he said, “these are tire marks in the grass, here, and we can see the grass is laid down, indicating the tires were rolling at the time, not locked up.”
The next photo showed the tracks further along, closer to the accident. This one showed multiple tracks in the dirt.
Hickey said, “Multiple tracks like that indicates the vehicle had begun to yaw — the wheels in one direction, and the course of the vehicle in another — see how the grass was getting pulled up along here from the friction?”
Another photo showed where the tires came back on the roadway, and Hickey continued his narrative.
“Here we see the effects of more friction where the tires grind against the pavement and turns sideways. Multiple tracks by the vehicle’s tires indicates the speed of the yawed vehicle would have been sufficient to disturb the dirt without actually stopping the vehicle and, in any event, a fire truck had run over the tracks before we took our measurements.”
The expression on Hickey’s face indicated what he thought of firemen who drive over tracks at an accident scene.
The next photo was taken even closer to the collision, and showed a utility pole just ahead.
Hickey said, “The tire marks indicate the vehicle was still yawed at the time it entered the roadway. The tire friction (skid marks) on the pavement goes right up to the point of the collision. At the time of the collision the vehicle was still yawing.”
“Do you know what the cause of that would be?”
“It could indicate an unsafe speed, or a vehicle out of control — the driver not being in control of the vehicle.”
The next photo showed both vehicles, the blue SUV driven by Ms. Leslie was off the roadway, turned completely around, and the red one driven by Ms. Young, “vehicle two,” was pushed backwards and the hood was buckled in half, standing tent-like over the engine. The left side driver’s door was open and the bottom of the steering wheel was badly bent. The windshield was spider-webbed with cracks from the force of the collision.
“We didn’t determine any evidence that the driver had hit the windshield,” Hickey said.
Another photo showed the damage to the blue vehicle, vehicle one, where it had rolled on its side and then righted itself before coming to rest facing the opposite direction. Hickey pointed out a “paint transfer” — some red marks on the bumper — “where vehicle-one had struck vehicle-two.”
Rosenfeld then put up on the screen a “factual diagram” which Hickey had drawn on a computer. The diagram showed the distances of the tire marks and relative positions of the two vehicles involved. Both sides would later refer back to this drawing and the distances measured. But first, Rosenfeld wanted to establish that Ms. Leslie had been eating the pastry.
“Did you speak to Ms. Leslie?”
“Yes. She said she left Calpella approximately 10:50 a.m. heading back to her residence in Brooktrails. She stopped at a convenience store and purchased pastries and iced tea. She was traveling on Sherwood Road at approximately 40 MPH, eating a pastry while driving. She began choking, causing her to cough. She said she took her eyes off the road and felt the vehicle traveling on the soft shoulder of the road. She looked up and saw a telephone pole and jerked the wheel to the left, traveling across both lanes. She observed a vehicle traveling towards her and turned to the left to avoid a collision.”
“Based on your investigation, there wasn’t any physical evidence to indicate the vehicle was traveling — yawing — in a clockwise motion to the right?”
“She remembered standing outside her vehicle after the accident with the pastry still in her hand.”
On cross Faulder went thoroughly through Officer Hickey’s training and the development of his investigation and the writing of his report; the photographs, we learned, were taken by the duty sergeant.
Faulder said, “That’s the problem with him being a sergeant — even though you are in charge of the investigation, he takes the photos whenever he wants?”
Hickey agreed with a rueful chuckle.
Faulder said, “Now, the diagram, Officer Hickey. These lines here, do they indicate the tire marks?”
“And the measurements are accurate?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“You made these measurements yourself?”
“Yes, sir. With a roll meter. There is a roll meter in every patrol vehicle.”
“But only the sergeants get a camera?”
“Now, Officer Hickey, I need to ask you what is not here. Is this the only diagram you prepared?”
“And there are no skid marks for vehicle two — the vehicle driven by Ms. Young — isn’t that true?”
“Not to my knowledge, no. … I mean, yes, that’s correct.”
“And there were no marks because there was no braking?”
“Now, Ms. Leslie was driving the KIA Sedona SUV, so if you were going to pull off the road along here, you would have to pull off onto the grass, wouldn’t you?”
“And it’s on a slope here, so if it had been raining it would be soft and wet, with water running off the roadway as well?”
“And did you see where the tires left an impression in the soft ground?”
“And you don’t see the signs of the vehicle “yawing” where she first goes off, do you?”
“But up here, that’s clearly where the vehicle starts to yaw, isn’t?”
“And it is still off the roadway?”
“So the ground is clearly softer there, would you agree to that?”
“And you described this “yaw” as when the driver is not in control of the vehicle — of the vehicle being out of control?”
“So she has not gone over the white fog line yet?”
“And the grass and dirt is tore up where she was yawing and sliding in the mud?”
“So it is clear Ms. Leslie was not in control of her vehicle?”
“So whatever Ms Leslie was trying to do, she was not in control, and unable to do anything?”
“It’s possible, yes,” Hickey answered vaguely.
“Are you familiar with what happens when tires are slipping and then suddenly they hit something that gives traction?”
“It [the vehicle] suddenly goes in the direction the tires are pointed, doesn’t it?”
“In your training, Officer Hickey, have you ever been in this situation?”
“Not in my training course,” Hickey insisted sullenly. He realized perhaps the damage he was doing to the state’s case.
“I see,” Faulder said as if he were disappointed in the officer’s experience. “But do I have that right? That she’s not in control of the vehicle?”
“So, based on the physical evidence, she was not in control of the vehicle?”
“Is it a fair approximation of her speed that she was going 40 MPH?”
“And it was posted at 45mph?”
“So that leads me to this question: Can you estimate how much time passed between this point and the point of collision?”
“I can’t give a correct time.”
Faulder hadn’t asked for a correct time; he asked for an estimate. He tried again.
“Would five seconds be a fair approximation?”
“I have no idea.”
Faulder stared coldly at the witness.
Hickey at last said with heat, “There is training you can go to for that — but I have not, to this day, been to that training.”
A recess was called for lunch, after which the county Medical Examiner Dr. Jason Trent was put on the stand.
“She died of blunt force trauma to her chest,” Dr. Trent said of Ms. Sandra Lee Young. “This lady — I looked at her in the mortuary, and saw very little trauma, but once I looked inside, I saw multiple injuries. The pericardial sac, the sack that contains the heart, was filled with blood. The aorta was partially torn, and that caused the blood to be loose and balloon the pericardial sac. Broken ribs had caused hemorrhaging in the chest, and the piercing of her lung, causing blood in the abdominal cavity. She literally bled to death. Because the pericardium was full of blood, the heart cannot function properly. And the aorta being torn stopped the heart from functioning.”
Faulder had no questions. DDA Rosenfeld entered the death certificate into evidence and the People rested.
Faulder asked Judge Richard Henderson to send the jury out into the hallway to wait while he made a 1118.4 Motion to dismiss the case. When the jury was gone Faulder said, “No responsible jury could find Ms. Leslie guilty by the evidence presented by the prosecution. The charges are driving over the double yellow line, and making an unsafe left turn. But we know that she was not in control of the vehicle — it yawed — as was shown by prosecution. There was no unlawful conduct by Ms. Leslie.”
Rosenfeld said, “Well, how she got out of control to begin with was eating while driving on a damp roadway.”
“There is no law against eating on a damp roadway, your honor. Her vehicle went out of control while she was off the roadway. She was doing nothing unlawful, so no reasonable jury could find her guilty.”
“She was eating,” Rosenfeld insisted. “There’s is no law against sleeping while driving, or reading, or putting on your makeup — but it is negligence, and her negligence caused both these violations [crossing the yellow line and making an unsafe left turn].”
Judge Henderson said, “I anticipated some problems with this case. The People must prove the driver committed an infraction and the evidence showed the driver was out of control, at some point. But apparently she was in control when she got back on the roadway. I’m going to deny the motion.”
Faulder asked for a read-back of the testimony, but Henderson denied it, insisting that he’d been taking notes and knew very well what had been said.
The jury came back in and Faulder put his client on the stand.
Ms. Helen Leslie told the jury her story.
“I took my two little dogs to the dog groomer in Calpella that morning and stopped on the way home to get some pastries and lemonade…”
The story was much the same as we’d already heard.
“Did Officer Hickey arrest you?”
“When did you find out you were a defendant in a vehicular manslaughter case?”
“A year later I received a letter from the District Attorney’s Office. About three weeks before I received that letter I had heard the family of Sandra Young was suing me for wrongful death.”
By now it was late afternoon and the judge sent the jury home for the day. After they’d left, Mr. Faulder renewed his motion to dismiss, and this time the judge, having had time to reconsider, granted it.
The retired schoolteacher was free to go home.