A former Lake County deputy was arraigned this week on a felony charge of gross vehicular manslaughter in connection with a 2013 head-on crash that killed a vineyard employee as she drove to work.
James Scott Lewis, 54, was booked and released on his own recognizance, said Lake County Deputy District Attorney John Langan. The next hearing is scheduled for March 10.
A grand jury indicted Lewis on the charge in July but injuries he suffered in the crash prevented him from traveling to Lake County until about a week ago, Langan said, noting Lewis now lives in Virginia. He will not be required to attend all of his court hearings, Langan said.
Lewis was on duty and responding to a report of a home invasion robbery and vehicle pursuit on Oct. 3, 2013, when he crossed into the oncoming traffic lane and struck a 1995 Honda Civic driven by Gabriela Rivas Garcia, 26, Langan said. Rivas Garcia died at the scene. Lewis suffered major injuries.
The robbery suspects being pursued were indicted earlier in connection with the crash. They’re charged with murder under a theory that Garcia’s death was a byproduct of their crimes.
Lewis was driving at 80 mph or more when he attempted to pass another vehicle while in a blind, shoulderless curve on Highway 29, Langan said.
“We believe that maneuver was gross negligence,” Langan said.
He said it appeared Garcia attempted to avoid the collision by pulling toward an embankment to her right. But “the victim really had nowhere to go.”
The fact that Lewis was responding to a crime did not mean he was allowed to drive in a manner that was unsafe, Langan said.
The criminal case does not accuse Lewis of being impaired by alcohol, as alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the victim’s family. The lawsuit names Lewis and the Lake County as defendants.
The suit was filed by Gloria Garcia Gamino and Jose Daniel Rivas Cruz after county supervisors rejected a claim for $10 million, according to their Santa Rosa attorney, Jeremy Fietz.
Lewis may not have been legally intoxicated — which requires a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or more — but he had been drinking, according to police and grand jury reports, Fietz said.
Lewis had a blood-alcohol level of 0.01 percent when tested about 1½ hours after the crash occurred, according to the lawsuit.
“In my contention, the alcohol in his system caused or contributed to the accident because it took away that high level of functioning that officers need when they’re responding to calls, driving 80 mph,” Fietz said Wednesday. He also contends that Lewis knew other officers closer to the crime scene — about 5 miles from the crash site — were responding so there was no need for excessive speed.
The civil case is scheduled to go to trial in Lake County in June, but it may be delayed because the judge to which it was assigned has recused himself, Fietz said. Judge Richard Martin stepped away from the case after his son, Brian Martin, was elected sheriff.
Neither Lewis nor his attorney could be reached Wednesday for comment. Lewis is a one-time firefighter and paramedic in the Sacramento area. He joined the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in 2001. An Army reservist, he left Lake County in 2008 for a five-year stint in the military that included conducting criminal investigations, and returned in 2012, according to online profiles.