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Woman killed in crash with Lake County deputy remembered as devoted to family


Every month, Lake County vineyard worker Gabriela Rivas Garcia sent $300 or $400 to her family in Valle de Santiago, an agricultural community in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.

The money was to fulfill a promise she made when she came to the United States eight years ago — to keep her younger siblings from enduring the poverty she once knew.

Thursday, instead of money, Rivas' family will receive her body in a coffin.

Rivas died the morning of Oct. 3, while headed to work at Beckstoffer Vineyards in Kelseyville. Her car was struck head-on by a Lake County sheriff's deputy who was rushing to assist another deputy in pursuit of robbery suspects.

Rivas died at the scene, on Highway 29 west of Lower Lake. She was 26.

"Her dreams were to help her family," said her uncle, Jose Garcia Pantoja, speaking in Spanish. "She said she wanted her young siblings to have a better life than what she did."

The CHP is still investigating the 6:21 a.m. crash, but said preliminary information indicates Deputy James Scott Lewis, 53, crossed into Rivas' lane at high speed, his SUV colliding head-on with her 1995 Honda Civic.

Lewis' patrol vehicle, a Chevrolet Tahoe, landed on its side and he suffered major injuries, including multiple fractures, officials said. Lewis is said to be recuperating at home after a brief hospital stay.

"He suffered some life-threatening, very serious injuries. There's no question about that," Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero said. "By the grace of God he survived.

"It's really unfortunate and sad and tragic that the woman passed away," Rivero continued. "My heart goes out to her and her family."

A third driver, Charles W. Eagleton, 66, of Lakeport, was behind Rivas and suffered minor injuries when his vehicle struck the overturned patrol SUV, the CHP said.

Lewis, a one-time firefighter and paramedic in the Sacramento County area, joined the Lake County Sheriff's Office in 2001 and worked as a detective and a member of the SWAT team, according to his profile on LinkedIn, a professional networking site.

A member of the U.S. Army Reserve, he left Lake County in 2008 for a five-year stint in the military that included conducting criminal investigations for the Army and serving as a security officer for high-ranking Defense Department officials, according to his online profiles.

Lewis returned to the sheriff's office early last fall and had been working in patrol. On Oct. 3, a call came in about a home-invasion robbery outside Lower Lake.

An emergency caller that morning reported that two men and two women had gotten into a home and beaten, robbed and shot at a man inside before fleeing, the sheriff's office said. Marijuana eradication officers had raided the home a few weeks earlier, seizing 950 plants, as well as some methamphetamine.

A deputy responding to the robbery spotted a suspect vehicle as it fled and began a pursuit, authorities said.

Lewis was en route on southbound Highway 29 to assist in the pursuit when he collided with Rivas, authorities said.

Her death has been a tragic blow to her family members, most of whom live in Mexico, her uncle, a Lake County resident, said.

"Her mother is sick with grief," Garcia said as he prepared himself to travel to Mexico. "She's suffering a lot. She's been waiting for two weeks."

Rivas lived in Clearlake with her boyfriend. She was one of 10 siblings and has an older sister who lives in San Jose.

That sister has her own family to raise, so the task of helping to support their family in Mexico mainly fell to Rivas, Garcia said. Her father is a farmworker who works the region's corn and bean fields.

Garcia said the last time he talked to his niece was the day before she died. It was in the evening, after working in the vineyard.

Rivas and her uncle both worked as laborers for JAC Ag Services Inc., based in Merced County. Manager Alan Olivera said JAC had employed Garcia seasonally since 2010, and he knew her as a hard worker with lots of friends.

"She was a likeable person," he said.

She enjoyed singing and dancing, Olivera said. Some of her work friends sang at a service held for her in Lake County last Friday, he said.

Rivas' uncle said the cost of transporting his niece's remains back home is about $10,500. JAC and Beckstoffer are the two largest contributors to a fund that so far has raised about $8,000 toward the cost.

A Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, or MAIT, out of the CHP's Redding office, is handling the crash investigation, which is expected to take several months owing to the extensive calculations that go into reconstructions of such accidents.

Rivero said he has deliberately avoided any contact with CHP investigators "because I don't want even a perception of impropriety."

"There's gonna be no cover-up here or anything like that," he said.

The sheriff said, however, that the crash reflects, in part, the winding, rural roadways that law enforcement and other emergency personnel are required to traverse on the job.

He ultimately laid blame for the crash with the violence inherent in rampant marijuana cultivation like that believed linked to the home-invasion robbery that spurred Lewis' response that day.

"A lot of lives have been changed and impacted by this incident, and frankly I associate all of these with this marijuana problem that we have here in this county," Rivero said. "If not for the armed hold-up and the shooting going on, we wouldn't be responding at all. We'd be somewhere else."

One suspect in the robbery, a woman, remains at large.

Garcia, Rivas's uncle, said the deputy should not have taken such a risk in carrying out his duties. He puts the blame on the deputy.

"We all think it was very bad," he said, adding that the family has obtained an attorney to represent them.

People can contribute to the Gabriela Rivas Garcia Memorial Fund at the Westamerica Bank in Kelseyville, 4025 Main St.

(Staff Writer Glenda Anderson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)