Monday, Sept. 24, 2007 | Just before 5 a.m. on April 11, 2006, 64-year-old Mariquita Mesa and her 21-year-old grandson James loaded into Mariquita’s black Toyota Rav4 and headed out of their Spring Valley neighborhood. Mariquita was taking James to work, as she always did whenever he had an early shift.
A few minutes later Mariquita was dead, her body slumped in the drivers’ seat in a mess of broken glass and twisted metal. James, who had fallen asleep next to his grandmother, sustained only minor injuries.
A few feet away, his patrol car skewed to an awkward angle across the two-lane street, sat Sheriff’s Deputy Garner Leigh Davis. His seatbelt was undone, his lights were not flashing. His siren was not blaring.
A GPS device retrieved from Davis’ state-of-the art patrol car would tell investigators that Davis had been driving 67 mph seconds before hitting the Mesa’s vehicle and killing Mariquita. The speed limit on the street is 40 mph.
Despite his claim that he was responding to an emergency call, Davis’ driving was unsafe for the conditions, a California Highway Patrol report would later conclude. The same report mandated that the District Attorney’s Office should complete its own investigation and decide whether or not to prosecute Davis for vehicular manslaughter.
While the District Attorney’s Office considered the case, the Sheriff’s Department paid $1 million in damages to the Mesas, and put Davis in a patrol car driven by another deputy.
After reviewing the CHP’s investigation, the district attorney has now decided not to any criminal charges against Davis. Pending an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s department, Davis will continue patrolling the streets of Lemon Grove. He has received no disciplinary action for his driving on that morning in April last year.
Attorneys for the six sons, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandson that survived Mariquita Mesa said the family is dismayed with the way their case has been handled.
“They felt betrayed. One of the brothers, Ken, told me that we all have to take responsibility for what we’ve done and it sounds like this officer is going to be skirting responsibility for his mother’s death,” said Jerrold Bodow, one of the attorneys.
“They all feel that justice has just not been served,” he added.
Anthony Kalikas, the Mesa’s other attorney, faulted the Sheriff’s Department for not starting an investigation last year, directly after the accident, and asked why Sheriff’s Department officials went on television the day of the accident claiming it was clear Mesa was to blame.
“This is just a continuation of them protecting their own,” Kalikas said. “The key to every case is collecting evidence as soon as possible, because evidence dissipates — memories fade, people move away.”
But Stuart Henry, director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University and an expert in criminal justice, defended San Diego’s system of accountability for law enforcement and the district attorney’s investigation procedure.
“Policing the police is an eternal problem,” he said. “It’s never easy. However, at the same time, you can question the practice of investigating the police and ask ‘Who monitors that?’”
Kalikas also disputed some of the statements of fact contained in the district attorney’s letter. Calling the letter a “cover up,” he pointed out that it says Davis’ headlights were on at the time of the accident. That’s never been established, he said, so it shouldn’t have been in the letter.
Sheriff’s Department spokespersons declined to comment on the accident.
In an interview Friday, Lt. Hope Andrews, patrol lieutenant for the Lemon Grove station where Davis works, said she had not yet read the district attorney’s letter. She said the Sheriff’s Department’s internal affairs unit would start looking into the accident now the district attorney has decided not to prosecute. That’s standard procedure, she said.
The district attorney’s letter explains why the agency will not be investigating the matter further:
“[W]e could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Deputy Davis’ actions constituted a failure to use reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm.”
The CHP report states that on the morning of the accident, Davis had volunteered to respond to a “suspicious person” call at a nearby school. Kalikas said he subpoenaed all records or 911 recordings that would show where Davis was going and whether his speed was warranted. He said he never got any of the reports or recordings.
The CHP report also includes extracts from a statement made by Sheriff’s Deputy Daryl Spillman, who was assigned to the same station and was working the same shift as Davis and was in a separate patrol car. In his statement, Spillman is quoted as saying that he and Davis were en route to a “possible vehicle burglary,” a statement that’s seemingly at odds with Davis’ account.
The distinction could be crucial, as officers don’t generally turn on their sirens or their lights when they’re on their way to scope out people acting suspiciously — they don’t want the suspects to know they’re coming. That would help explain why Davis never turned on his siren or lights and why he was speeding.
Spillman, who was driving the speed limit, is quoted in the report saying he saw Davis’ vehicle crash into Mesa’s about 200 feet ahead of him. In an initial interview conducted with Davis shortly after the accident and contained in the report, Davis stated that he did not know the exact speed he had been traveling when he hit Mesa because he wasn’t looking at his speedometer. His statement also says that he wears his seatbelt on 60 percent of the calls he responds to.
“The primary cause of this collision was determined to be Davis’ unsafe speed for conditions,” the CHP report concludes.
Bodow said the $1 million the Mesa family won in mediation now feels like blood money.
In video interviews taped by the attorneys shortly after the accident, Mesa’s sons can be seen talking about their mother.
“People are telling me to get help, but they can’t feel what I feel,” says Walter Mesa in one video. As he breaks down into tears he continues. “On the 10th of April, she was leaving a message on my cell phone saying … trying to give me some information … saying ‘I’ll see you later.’”
The family’s attorneys described Mariquita Mesa as the matriarch of the family. On the day of the accident, after dropping her grandson off at work before dawn, they said, she was going to drive to another son’s house to baby sit his 4-year-old son. After staying there all day, she was going to return home to another son’s house to cook dinner for the family.
Mesa was also well known and well respected in the local Guamanian community, the attorneys said.
The family is now hoping that the state attorney general’s office will decide to investigate the accident and subsequent investigation, said Kalikas. That happened in 2005 when the Attorney General’s Office stepped in to evaluate the district attorney’s investigations into a spate of shootings by Sheriffs deputies in Vista.
“This guy didn’t even get a speeding ticket,” he said.