Friday, May 2, 2008

DA investigator killed in head-on crash


A veteran investigator in the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office was killed Thursday night in a car crash on the mountain road that she had used to commute to work for years. Officials say the 22-year-old woman who caused the crash was under the influence of alcohol.
When officials arrived on the scene they found Laura Cleaves, a supervising investigator in the DA’s office, dead — the result of a head-on collision with a black Mercedes Benz driven by Ashley Johnigan, who was allegedly drunk.

The violent collision took place not on the zigzagged mountain pass, which has a reputation for such incidents, but in the flats near Armour Ranch Road, where the highway crosses the Santa Ynez River.
Prior to the collision, a 911 caller reported a possible drunken driver in a black Mercedes on Highway 246 headed toward Highway 154.
Shortly after 11:30 p.m., two California Highway Patrol troopers pulled up behind the Mercedes, which was partially blocking an eastbound lane, and began their approach, said Officer Dan Barba.
“As the officers neared the Mercedes, the female driver sped away in an easterly direction on [Highway 154], crossing the double yellow lines and entering the oncoming lane,” he said. “The officers returned to their patrol car and as they entered the traffic lane the Mercedes struck a westbound Dodge Stratus, head-on.”
After striking the Dodge, which was headed toward Santa Ynez and was driven by Cleaves, the Mercedes collided with a Ford Escape before coming to rest.
Barba said he did not know the amount of alcohol found in Johnigan’s system, or where the Santa Barbara woman was coming from.
The highway was closed from that moment on and wasn’t opened until 7:30 yesterday morning. Barba said the State Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the case because Cleaves was on duty when she was killed.
In her 32 years of law enforcement, Cleaves worked for a number of agencies in Southern California. After joining the DA’s office in 1984 Cleaves specialized in investigating complex cases like white-collar crime and child abduction — a subject she often lectured on, according to Dave Saunders, chief of investigators.
“I’d say she was known and respected for being very courageous and strong and I’d say she’s a role model for courage, and confidence, and character and she made the world a much better place,” Saunders said.
Cleaves was married to Sgt. Steve Cleaves, who works for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. Saunders the couple have two grown children.
He said Cleaves worked on a number of high profile cases during her tenure, including a recent child abuse case against former daycare provider Sylvia Vasquez, who pleaded guilty to four felony charges and was sentenced last May to 10 years behind bars.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who was the prosecutor in that case, said yesterday that she heard from Cleaves at about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, and had little idea that would be the last time she would hear her voice.
“She was professional, she was smart, she was perceptive, she was incredibly caring and compassionate toward the alleged victim, she was insightful and that’s been my experience in working with her over the last 18 years and that’s who she is,” Dudley said.
Saunders said Cleaves was famous around the office for her baking skills.
“She made the best desserts and treats,” he said. “She’d bring them in and they were awesome.”
Each Christmas, Saunders said Cleaves would extravagantly decorate her home in the Santa Ynez Valley. He said it looked like “Disneyland.”
“She really just enjoyed doing that,” he said.
Another of Cleaves’ passions was for horses. Aside from being a top-notch investigator, Saunders said Cleaves had been a reserved deputy sheriff since 1998, where she worked with mounted, or horse units. She was the primary instructor and taught the deputies horsemanship, Saunders said.
“She really was an exceptional person, not just a great cop but a great friend,” he said. “She’ll be missed for a lot of reasons beyond her investigative skill.”
Saunders said donations to the Laura Cleaves Memorial Fund can be made at any Santa Barbara Bank and Trust location. The account No. is 0101705895.


Anonymous said...

2 head on collisions within 24 hours. Good thing Caltrans is planning to spend $2.8 million in highway safety money on that suicide barrier on the Cold Spring Bridge.

Beans said...

My sister worked with her and she said that this family is devastated. I know that people are reeling and in terrible shock over her death. I just can't undertstand why someone who had been at a bar drinking heavily that night was allowed to get into their car and drive. They should have taken her keys away from her. But appearantly it doesn't work that way. People can get smashed at a bar and drive wherever they want. It sickens me that this woman died such a senseless death. What a waste of someone who was such a pillar to the community. I just don't understand things like this and I never will. People don't have to drink and then get in their car and drive. They just don't have to. When are people going to learn???? It wasn't just one vehicle that she hit either. It was two and luckily no one else died. I just think that there has to be a much heaveir form of punishment for this crime and then maybe, just maybe people will wake up and stop driving when they are wasted.

Vigilante said...

What an incredible, senseless loss....

Anonymous said...

I am very sorry for Laura's family. This must be a time of great sorrow for them. I would like to say though that I knew Laura for many years and believed that she was a know-it-all who was very vindictive with alot of folks. I hope that she will realize her mistakes now.

Sdstrbr said...

How freaking DARE you! What cowardly words, you can't BEGIN to know the loss felt by her family and friends. No doubt at some point in her life, Laura showed you up for what you are and my bet is the only mistake she made was not outing you publicly for the vicious, pathetic creep that you are. YOU are the definition of vindictive! Go ahead, admit your identity and see what happens. Oh and by the way, her loved ones and co-workers will avenge her by seeing that every day, criminals will be held accountable for their actions against the innocent. Bet on it....... Martha, we love and miss you.....