CHP official defends his account of deadly Greyhound bus crash

Accused of doing a shoddy investigation, a California Highway Patrol lieutenant fired back at his critics Thursday while defending his 566-page investigative report about a deadly Greyhound bus crash that placed all the blame on an 18-year-old driver.

Lt. Rob Krider told a Fresno County Superior Court jury in a wrongful death civil trial that Sylvia Garay was drunk when she lost control of her SUV and overturned it on Highway 99 in Fresno in July 2010.

He said Greyhound bus driver James Jewett could not have avoided hitting the Chevrolet TrailBlazer because its dark undercarriage was facing oncoming traffic.

Therefore, Greyhound neither caused the horrific predawn crash on July 22, 2010, Krider testified, nor did it contribute to the death of six people. Those include Garay, 18, and her two friends, Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 20, as well as Jewett and two bus passengers.

His testimony was a direct hit on claims advanced by the families of the young women who have sued 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.

Spending all day on the witness stand, Krider confidently refuted nearly every accusation against Greyound. But he got tripped up when the families’ lawyers asked him to explain why he believed Garay was driving.

Both sides agreed that Garay had a blood-alcohol level of .11, Cordoba’s was .05 and Gonzalez showed no alcohol. The legal limit for an adult to drive is .08.

In his CHP report that took nearly a year to complete, Krider said there was no physical evidence to prove Garay was driving. He deduced she was driving because her mother, Olga Garay, owned the SUV, and he said witnesses told him and his Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team that Garay was driving.

In a deposition last year, he repeated his assertion that no physical evidence linked Garay to being behind the wheel.

But in court Thursday, he told the jury that he reviewed autopsy reports for the three young women and discovered Gonzalez and Cordoba had seat belt markings across their upper torso that showed they were either in the front passenger seat or rear passenger seat. “It was a process of elimination,” he told the jury, noting that Garay had no seat belt markings.

“There’s no doubt in my mind Garay was driving,” he said.

Krider also said that he and his team went to the crash scene with no preconceived idea of how it occurred.

But that was different from what a deputy coroner testified Wednesday. The coroner said that the CHP told him within a few hours of the crash that it was alcohol-related. Krider neither confirmed or denied saying it to the deputy coroner. “I don’t recall,” the 17-year CHP veteran said.

But for most of the day, Krider was sure of his answers, taking on the role of an expert in physics, auto mechanics, crash reconstruction and other scientific fields.

For example, he testified that Jewett was wearing his glasses at the time of the crash. He came to the conclusion, he said, after examining how Jewett’s eyeglass frames were bent. He also said Jewett was required to wear glasses, so he had no reason not to wear them.

Regarding the brakes, lawyers for both sides agreed to a stipulation that said two Greyhound mechanics told their supervisors that the disc brake pads on the Greyhound bus that Jewett was driving needed to be replaced. Krider, however, testified that his investigative team pulled the brakes off the mangled bus and found the pads were within federal regulations for wear.

Krider told the jury that he and his team never determined the actual speed of the bus before it rammed the SUV. He explained a “black box” on Jewett’s bus would have given him vital information such as speed, when Jewett hit the brakes, and whether he took any evasive maneuvers.

Krider testified that when he asked a Greyhound official to download the information, no useful data resulted.

His team, however, still managed to estimate the speed by looking at the damage to the bus and to the SUV; the conditions of the bodies, which he said were intact; skid marks and other factors. He testified that the bus was going 50 mph to 70 mph just before striking the SUV.

The speed limit on Highway 99 is 65 mph. Regardless of the bus speed, Krider told the jury that the crash was “unavoidable” because Jewett couldn’t see the SUV in time to stop because the undercarriage had no reflective material.

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 a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District.

Last week, two of the women’s friends — Daniela Flores and Elizabeth Christensen – testified that Gonzalez was driving minutes after leaving the nightclub. A third friend, Brandon McCullough, testified Wednesday that he saw Cordoba behind the wheel.

Krider testified he had no knowledge of their testimony, which has been on The Bee’s website and in the newspaper.

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.

Krider testified that the SUV had a black box and his team downloaded the information. He said the SUV hit the cement divider at 55 mph and cracked it. The impact caused the SUV’s airbags to deploy.

After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus continued on 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.

In trying to figure out who caused the crash, Krider said his team closed the northbound side of 99 during the predawn hours in October 2010 to do a re-enactment. Lawyers for the families contend Greyhound declined to give Krider’s team a 2006 bus similar to the one Jewett was driving.

But all Krider was permitted to tell the jury was that he used a 2002 bus to test a bus driver’s vision and a 1999 bus to test the braking system. Though the buses were older, he told the jury they were similar to what Jewett was driving that night and didn’t hinder the testing or change his opinion of who caused the crash.

In perfect daylight conditions, Krider said, a driver on Highway 99 near the McKinley exit would be able to see at least 900 feet in front of the vehicle. At night, the line of sight decreases immensely, he said.

Ten different people riding the bus during the re-enactment gave different estimations on when they saw an overturned vehicle, ranging from 234 feet to 616 feet. 

Krider figured Jewett had only 384.6 feet to stop.

If Jewett had been going 65 mph per hour, and it took him 1.5 seconds to react, he would have traveled about 143 feet before he hit the brakes, Krider told the jury. That would leave him about 242 feet to stop the bus. Because of the braking power of the bus, it would need 326 feet to stop at 65 mph, so he would have hit the overturned SUV, Krider said.

But if Jewett was going 55 mph and it took him 1.5 seconds to react, he would have traveled about 121 feet before he hit the brakes. That would leave him with 264 feet to stop. Because the bus was going slower, it would need over 233 feet to stop, so Jewett would not have plowed into the SUV, he said.

However, the 55 mph scenario was not likely, Krider said, because the speed limit was 65 and Jewett had no reason to go slower since he could not see the overturned SUV. And if he seen the SUV, his reaction time was likely around 2.2. to 2.5 seconds because the SUV was unexpected, Krider said.

In addition, Krider testified that Jewett could not have taken evasive action because he might have rolled the bus.

In drawing his conclusions, Krider said Greyhound did not interfere or influence his investigation. Addressing accusations against his investigation, he said, “I have nothing invested.”

But Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, who represent the families, contend that Krider was trying to justify his CHP report to protect his reputation. They say 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 contend Krider’s testimony is untrustworthy because, at the time of his investigation, Greyhound had sued the CHP for negligence. That suit was later dismissed.

Krider will return to the witness stand Monday when the trial resumes in Judge Donald Black’s courtroom.