Greyhound bus trial to hear from relatives of young women killed in crash

The Greyhound bus trial in Fresno County Superior Court is heading for a short break so the judge can attend a week-long seminar.

Once testimony wraps up Thursday, the trial will resume March 16.

The civil trial is focusing on the July 22, 2010, predawn crash involving a Greyhound bus and an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno.

Six people were killed, including Sylvia Garay, 18, Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 29, who were in the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer. The crash also killed Greyhound driver James Jewett and two bus passengers.

The families of the three young women have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.

In the first three weeks of the trial, testimony has focused on who was driving the SUV and whether the bus drivercould have avoided hitting the SUV.

Thursday, relatives of the three victims are expected to testify.

The California Highway Patrol has blamed the deadly crash on Garay, saying she was drunk when she overturned the SUV near the McKinley Avenue offramp. The CHP also contends Jewett did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the dark undercarriage of the SUV when he slammed into it.

The families’ lawyers, however, have called witnesses who say Gonzalez was driving and that the crash could have been avoided. Gonzalez had no alcohol in her body, court records show.

Wednesday, Tom Shelton, a retired sergeant and formerly the CHP’s top expert on accident reconstruction, wrapped up his testimony for the plaintiffs. He said the crash could have been avoided and that it was wrong for the CHP to blame Garay because he said the evidence collected by investigators is insufficient.

The evidence included seat-belt bruises on the victim’s body; Shelton testified that evidence — autopsy photos of the three women that have been shown to the jury — is inconclusive and does not by itself put Garay behind the wheel of the SUV.

The CHP could have figured out who was driving, Shelton said, if investigators had sent the blood on the driver’s side and passenger’s side airbags to the California Department of Justice laboratory for forensic testing. But the CHP didn’t seek that analysis.

Shelton also told the jury that the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team did an inadequate analysis when it re-enacted the bus crash.

Once the trial resumes on March 16, Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, who represent the families, plan to call an expert to advance their claim that Jewett wasn’t wearing his glasses — a requirement for him drive a bus.

Greyhound lawyers Dana Alden Fox and Esther Pardo Holm of Los Angeles will then call witnesses from March 17 to March 19. Closing arguments are expected March 23.

Both sides agree that 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.

The women then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District. On their way home, the TrailBlazer swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median, hitting it with such force that it cracked the cement and caused the SUV’s airbags to deploy. The SUV rolled and came to rest on its side in the fast lane.

Once the SUV overturned, witnesses say two to three minutes passed before the bus hit it. 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.