Suit: Deputy in fatal crash was impaired
The parents of a Lake County vineyard worker who was killed last fall in a head-on crash with a sheriff's deputy filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Tuesday claiming the deputy was driving under the influence of alcohol.
Gabriela Rivas Garcia, 26, of Clearlake, was killed Oct. 3 when her car was struck by an SUV driven by Deputy James Scott Lewis, then 53, who was rushing to the scene of a home-invasion robbery.
Four robbery suspects were arrested and later indicted on murder charges under a theory that Garcia's death was a byproduct of their crimes.
But Garcia's parents allege real blame lies with Lewis, who they said had a "significant" amount of alcohol in his system.
Test results disclosed in secret grand jury proceedings show Lewis had a blood-alcohol level of .01 percent at the hospital about 1 1/2 -hours after the crash and up to .05 percent when the crash occurred, according to the lawsuit.
The levels were below the legal limit of .08 percent, but his judgment and reaction time were impaired, the lawsuit said. Also, he violated department policy that prohibits deputies from reporting for work with any detectable amounts of alcohol in their blood, the lawsuit said.
He failed to report the alcohol consumption in part to avoid telling his supervisors of his condition and risking discipline, the suit said.
"Lewis placed his own interests ahead of the people of Lake County," the family's lawyer, Jeremy Fietz, said in the lawsuit.
Lewis, who was seriously injured in the crash, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. It was unclear if the onetime firefighter and military veteran had returned to active duty after recuperating from his injuries.
Neither Sheriff Frank Rivero nor County Counsel Anita Grant returned calls.
Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said he was not authorized to discuss pending litigation. "It's a tragedy all around," he said.
The suit was filed by Gloria Garcia Gamino and Jose Daniel Rivas Cruz after county supervisors rejected an earlier claim for $10 million, Fietz said.
It names the county and Lewis and seeks punitive damages because Lewis "put the community in danger," the suit alleges.
After arriving for an early-morning shift, Lewis was summoned by dispatchers to assist another deputy in pursuit of home-invasion robbery suspects.
Lewis was driving along Highway 29, just west of Lower Lake, when he crossed the center line in his Chevy Tahoe and hit Gabriela Garcia, who was driving to work in her Honda Civic.
Garcia died at the scene. She left behind a fianc?? as well as family members. A CHP investigation into the cause of the collision is not complete.
Rivero previously blamed it on the county's winding roads and violence inherent in marijuana cultivation -- believed to be a factor in the robbery.
In grand jury proceedings, Lake County prosecutors acknowledged that Lewis had alcohol in his system. However, they said it was not relevant because he wouldn't have been on the road if not for the robbery report.
But Garcia's parents allege in the lawsuit that Lewis is directly responsible for their daughter's death. They suspect he may have been drinking in the hours leading up to his shift and was unfit for duty.
Fietz said Lewis had several opportunities to withdraw from the high-speed pursuit when a deputy closer to the suspects became involved. Department policy says no deputy can be disciplined for breaking off a chase for safety reasons, Fietz said.
"Of course, Deputy Lewis knew he might have to explain why he withdrew from joining the pursuit," Fietz said in the lawsuit. "Instead, he kept his mouth shut again, and continued to drive at high rates of speed and continued to endanger the lives of people on the road."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.