LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – An in-depth investigation into a crash last week that involved a Lake County Sheriff's deputy and resulted in the death of a Clearlake woman is under way, with a full report not expected for several months.
District Attorney's Office and California Highway Patrol representatives told Lake County News on Friday that the involved and complex nature of the crash investigation likely will mean that it won't be completed until sometime early in 2014.
“There's a lot of unusual factors,” including the seriousness of the incident, particularly the young woman's death, said District Attorney Don Anderson.
He said the CHP and its Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, or MAIT, are doing the bulk of the crash investigation.
“I don't anticipate having their report for several months,” said Anderson.
The wreck occurred early on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 3, as a Lake County Sheriff's deputy was responding to a report of a home invasion robbery and pursuit in the Lower Lake area, as Lake County News has reported.
The deputy – whose name has still not been released by the Lake County Sheriff's Office – was traveling at a high rate of speed southbound on Highway 29 when he was involved in a head-on crash half a mile north of Diener Drive that killed 26-year-old Gabriela Rivas Garcia of Clearlake.
Following the crash the deputy, who sustained serious injuries, was flown to an out-of-county trauma center.
The sheriff's office has not responded to requests for an update on the deputy's condition.
Anderson said Friday that the deputy was still hospitalized, but he also didn't have a condition update.
Garcia's funeral took place in Lakeport Friday evening. A fund to help send her body home to her family in Mexico has been set up at Westamerica Bank, account number 0356061267.
Anderson said his office and the CHP, in their investigations, are following the critical incident protocol, which usually is triggered in cases involving law enforcement officers, such as officer-involved shootings and incidents like the crash.
Officer Kory Reynolds, the CHP Clear Lake Area office spokesman, said the MAIT team – based at the CHP Northern Division's Redding headquarters – conducts in-depth and complex investigations on crashes.
He said they use special equipment and investigators who are experts in the complex calculations that go along with trying to understand how collisions occur.
The local CHP office is not involved in MAIT's investigation into the fatal crash, Reynolds said.
The MAIT team had last been involved in a fatal crash investigation in Lake County after a bicyclist was killed near Lower Lake in January, Reynolds said.
With the high profile nature of the case and a deputy being involved, “You definitely want the best looking at it,” he said.
CHP Area Commander Greg Baarts had to make the request for MAIT, which decides if it will take on an investigation based, in part, on its ability to complete the work within a certain timeframe, Reynolds said.
Reynolds said MAIT sent several investigators to the scene that day, while at the same time sending a response team to a shooting investigation in the Trinity River area.
The stretch of Highway 29 in the crash area was closed for much of the day Oct. 3 while the MAIT investigators worked at the scene. Reynolds said he believed they managed to complete their work at the scene as well as the inspection of the vehicles all in one day, noting it usually takes much longer.
Reynolds said the MAIT members do extensive mathematical calculations to determine vehicle speed, trajectory, skidmarks and traction, and other factors as they reconstruct how the crash occurred.
“The coefficient of friction is huge and every roadway is different,” he said.
It results in a lengthy process, he added.
“That’s the main reason it takes so long, there’s so many calculations,” he said.
Reynolds estimated that it would be next February or March before the MAIT report was finished.
“For us, it's not about the time, it's about getting it right for everybody involved,” Reynolds said.
When the report is completed, the MAIT leader will come to Lake County to present it to the district attorney and the Clear Lake Area office will receive a copy, he explained.
Anderson said that once he has that MAIT report in hand, he will finish his own report and make his conclusion in the case.
He said MAIT is attempting to calculate the speed at which the deputy was traveling. It's not clear yet if the deputy, who was traveling with his lights and siren activated, was driving at too high a rate of speed.
That will be an important factor in Anderson's determination as to whether or not the deputy has criminal negligence in the crash.
Other factors to consider will be how much training in high speed pursuits the deputy has had and whether or not the sheriff's office has a policy in place regarding pursuits, according to Anderson.
“It's going to be a very difficult decision to make,” Anderson said.
Email Elizabeth Larson at [email protected] . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.