A Fresno man testified Wednesday that California Highway Patrol investigators threatened to arrest him and charge him with manslaughter if he changed his account of who was driving the night three young women died when their overturned SUV was rammed by a Greyhound bus on Highway 99 in July 2010.
Brandon McCullough, 26, told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that he saw Stephanie Cordoba behind the wheel of the SUV minutes before it took off from a Tower District neighborhood and headed toward the highway. He said Vanessa Gonzalez was in the front passenger seat and Sylvia Garay was lying in the back seat. The three had been to his home, where there had been drinking.
He said he gave a similar account in his deposition in March 2014.
But when it was pointed out that he had told CHP investigators that Garay was driving the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, he said the CHP got it all wrong.“When I challenged it, I was told it could not be retracted,” he explained to the jury. He said the CHP threatened two times to bring a manslaughter charge against him if he said someone other than Garay was driving.
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The horrific, predawn crash on July 22, 2010, killed six people, including Garay, 18, Gonzalez, 19, and Cordoba, 20. Also killed were Greyhound driver James Jewett and two bus passengers.
In the wrongful death civil trial, the families of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba are suing Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his glasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
In the second week of the trial, Fresno attorney Stuart Chandler and lawyers Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, who represent the three families, are calling witnesses to refute a CHP report that blamed the crash on Garay. It said she was drunk when she lost control of her SUV and overturned it. (The legal limit is .08. Her blood-alcohol level was .11.)
CHP officials also contend the crash was unavoidable because the undercarriage of the dark blue SUV was facing oncoming traffic.
To advance their negligence claim, the families’ attorneys called to the witness stand a Fresno eye doctor who talked about Jewett’s poor vision and a deputy coroner who said Jewett wasn’t wearing glasses when he photographed the driver’s body at the crash scene.
McCullough is the third witness to say Garay wasn’t driving. Last week, two of the women’s friends — Daniela Flores and Elizabeth Christensen — testified that Gonzalez was driving. Court records say Gonzalez had no alcohol or drugs in her body; Cordoba had .05 blood-alcohol.
Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound, was making a run from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m. About the same time, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were celebrating a friend’s birthday.
With the help of a friend, they had first gone to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage. They then went to McCullough’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District.
McCullough told the jury Wednesday that he had teased Gonzalez for her “good behavior.” He said Gonzalez never drank that night, noting that she is Mormon, a religion that prohibits drinking.
After dancing at the Starline, he said the group headed to Elizabeth and College avenues where Garay’s SUV was parked. McCullough testified that he went to the front passenger door to talk to Gonzalez, hug her, and say good-bye to her, Garay and Cordoba. The women were headed home, he said.
On cross-examination, McCullough admitted that he didn’t see the women drive off. But he told the jury that he was sure he “never told the CHP that Sylvia was driving.”
Earlier, Dr. Eric Poulsen, an ophthalmologist at the California Eye Institute, testified he reviewed Jewett’s medical records and found that his eye prescription changed four times over five years, from 1999 to 2003. The records also noted that Jewett had an eye exam scheduled in 2004, but didn’t go to it, Poulsen said.
Poulsen testified that Jewett had farsightedness, or hyperopia, which is condition in which distant objects are usually seen clearly, but close ones do not come into proper focus. He also noted that Jewett’s eyesight couldn’t be corrected to 20/20 vision even with glasses.
In general, most people prefer 20/20 vision, which means a person can see clearly at 20 feet. Bus drivers, however, can have 20/40 vision to drive a commercial bus, Poulsen said. A person with 20/40 vision means he or she must be within 20 feet to see what a person with normal vision can see at 40 feet.
To maintain his bus license, Jewett had to see a medical doctor for a physical every two years. During the physical, the doctor also examined Jewett’s eyes, Poulsen told the jury.
Jewett’s medical records show that he saw a doctor every two years. In his physical in April 2009, Jewett’s uncorrected vision was 20/50 for his right eye, 20/40 with his left eye and 20/30 when both eyes are used, Poulsen said. When Jewett wore glasses, his eyesight improved to 20/30 in his right and left eyes and 20/25 when both are are used, he said.
Poulsen testified that he did not know whether Jewett was driving with or without his glasses on the night of the crash. But if he wasn’t wearing glasses, it would have been unsafe for him to drive because his vision wouldn’t be clear enough to see dark objects against a dark background, Poulsen said.
Glare from oncoming headlights would worsen his night vision, he said.
On cross-examination, Poulsen told the jury that the families’ lawyers were paying him $1,500 an hour to examine Jewett’s medical reports and to give his expert opinion. He also admitted that he never tested Jewett’s eyes and that the doctor who examined Jewett in 2009 found no eye disease or problems.
But Poulsen stood firm in his opinion that Jewett had faulty vision because he either had an incorrect eye prescription or an eye disease.
Fresno County deputy coroner Jeff Gentry also couldn’t say for sure if Jewett was wearing glasses. But Gentry said when he was summoned to the crash site, Jewett wasn’t wearing glasses when he took a photograph of his body.
During his testimony, Gentry described a horrific scene: Jewett’s body was north of the crushed bus. One of the SUV victims was west of the bus, down an embankment, he said. A second female victim was south of the bus. The third female victim was behind the second victim, up against a tree, Gentry testified.
The testimony was so graphic that the families of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba left the courtroom while Gentry was on the witness stand.
In addition to taking 200 crash-scene photos, Gentry told the jury he went through Jewett’s shirt and pants pockets and collected such things as his wallet and belt. He testified that he doesn’t remember collecting Jewett’s glasses, but the glasses were listed in the coroner’s inventory of Jewett’s possessions.
Both sides agree that the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right, or slow lane. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated that the SUV swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley offramp and veered into the center median. The vehicle rolled, and then came to rest on its side in the left, or fast lane.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus careened down the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.
Los Angeles attorneys Dana Alden Fox and Esther Pardo Holm, who represent Greyhound, blame an intoxicated Garay for causing the fatal crash. But lawyers for the families contend that Greyhound was at fault because some motorists had driven around the overturned SUV while others had stopped and left their headlights or emergency flashers on in an effort to help the women. They also contend the CHP has no hard evidence to prove Garay was driving because the victims’ bodies were discovered outside the SUV.
The trial resumes Thursday when CHP Lt. Rob Krider, who oversaw the Greyhound crash investigation, testifies in Judge Donald Black’s courtroom.