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Tears rolled down Dalia Ruiz’s face Wednesday as she sat at the graves of her two granddaughters, killed last year when their mother’s car careened off the road on the way to school and plunged into the Petaluma River.

The gut-wrenching deaths of Delilah, 9, and Sayra Gonzalez, 7, were only the start of what has become an ongoing tragedy for Ruiz and her family. Her daughter, Alejandra Hernandez-Ruiz, 27, of Rohnert Park, was arrested last week and charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, child endangerment and driving on a suspended license. She faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted.

The prosecution comes as Hernandez-Ruiz is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for aggressive cervical cancer diagnosed about five months ago, but made public only Wednesday during a court appearance.

Ruiz, who visits her granddaughters’ graves at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Santa Rosa almost daily, said “there is no more punishment than losing your kids,” in Spanish as she looked down at the side-by-side plots adorned with fresh flowers and personal tokens. “Alejandra was a good mother. She always wanted to give the best to her daughters.”

Earlier in the day, she and dozens of family members packed a Santa Rosa courtroom to see Hernandez-Ruiz, who has been held on $500,000 bail since Friday.

Among the concerns was that she was not receiving pain medication and antibiotics, and would not be allowed to go to a previously scheduled radiation treatment in San Francisco.

Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite confirmed deputies were planning to escort her to the appointment and were giving her the prescribed drugs.

The judge said she would hear from a doctor Friday to decide if the onetime Rancho Cotate High School student should remain free for the remainder of her criminal proceedings, in part to undergo continued treatment and surgery.

“If we can save this woman’s life, at least what’s left of it, then that’s what we have to do,” said her lawyer, Izaak Schwaiger.

The Aug. 31, 2016, crash occurred as Hernandez-Ruiz was driving her daughters to school.

She had just dropped off their father, Edwin Gonzalez, at his job in Petaluma and was headed up Petaluma Boulevard North when the CHP said she drifted into the median, overcorrected and crashed down an embankment into a narrow stretch of the river near Petaluma Village Premium Outlets.

The car overturned and sank in 6 feet of water. Hernandez-Ruiz was able to get out but her daughters could not, remaining strapped in their seat belts. Police officers and firefighters arrived within minutes, diving in attempting to rescue them, but could not.

A CHP spokesman said Hernandez-Ruiz told investigators she had been cut off in traffic.

The crash followed one a week earlier in which two sisters were killed after their mother lost control of the family pickup on a wet road and plunged into the Russian River near Jenner. It was investigated and deemed accidental.

Prosecutors would not explain why they charged Hernandez-Ruiz, saying only that it was “the totality of her conduct while driving.” However, some details could emerge at Friday’s hearing where prosecutor Laura Passaglia is expected to argue against releasing her.

Measure AF

The Mendocino Heritage Act of 2016 would regulate and tax commercial medical cannabis activity in unincorporated Mendocino County. It was drafted by members of the local cannabis industry. The 60-page measure establishes:
Permits for cultivation, manufacture, transportation, distribution, testing and dispensaries with no cap on the number of permits.
A two-year residency requirement for all permits.
A 2.5 percent annual tax on the gross receipts of medical cannabis businesses.
Setbacks for cultivation and other cannabis businesses of 30 feet from a neigh-boring property line, 100 feet from an adjacent residence and 600 feet of a school or park.
Amendments by the Board of Supervisors starting in June 2018.
Butane hash production in industrial zones under standards set by the county.
A civil enforcement procedure for permit violations, removing law enforcement action.

“Some of the factors go into our reasoning about why she should stay in custody,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said.

Under the law, gross negligence is a step up from ordinary negligence and occurs when someone acts with disregard or indifference to human life.

But Hernandez-Ruiz’s family members don’t believe that’s what happened. As they gathered Wednesday at the cemetery on a hill overlooking the city, they said she was a good driver, had no criminal record and wouldn’t do anything to endanger her daughters.

“It was an accident,” said the girls’ father, who split with Hernandez-Ruiz after the crash but remained friendly. “Who would want to kill their daughters intentionally?”

At the time, Hernandez-Ruiz was not aware her license had been suspended, others said. If anything, the city was wrong for not erecting a guard rail along Petaluma Boulevard North to prevent cars from going into the river, family members said.

“If something like that was there, it would have saved their lives,” said her sister-in-law, Brandi Hernandez.

In the meantime, they attend each court hearing and take calls from the jail during which Hernandez-Ruiz urges them to “go see my babies,” her lawyer said.

And they do. On a daily basis, they visit Delilah’s and Sayra’s graves — rectangular marble slabs set in the ground in the children’s section of the cemetery and inscribed with their pictures and musical notes representing their love of singing.

Fresh flowers are delivered to replace those eaten by deer overnight and the family lays out candles, cartoon character cutouts and the kids’ favorite candy.

The grandmother, seated in a folding chair amid red, white, pink and yellow flowers, bowed her head in sadness.

“You can’t really overcome it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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