Two men killed in Petaluma crashes in 24-hour span

In less than 24 hours, two service industry workers were killed just two intersections apart in east Petaluma.

Rene Alvarez-DeLeon, 38, of San Rafael was killed Wednesday night when a truck driver apparently ran a red light at the intersection of South McDowell Boulevard and Lakeville Highway, and smashed into his Toyota sedan, according to police.

Alvarez-DeLeon, who was a delivery driver for Lily Kai restaurant in the adjacent shopping center, died at the scene of the 6:30 p.m. crash.

The night before, Mario Gongora Castaneda, 53, died when he was struck by an alleged drunken driver while he was taking his trash can to the curb around 7 p.m. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office identified Gongora Castaneda, a Novato restaurant owner and chef, on Thursday.

“Disturbing would be putting it mildly and tragic, most especially for the families and the people who lost their lives,” Petaluma Police Lt. Ed Crosby said of the fatal crashes. “That’s something we don’t take lightly.”

Crosby said Thursday the unidentified 34-year-old woman who was driving the truck westbound Wednesday toward the city and crashed into Alvarez-DeLeon’s vehicle hasn’t been arrested.

Petaluma police and investigators with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office are reviewing the circumstances to determine if charges should be filed, he said.

Alvarez-DeLeon was driving west on South McDowell, and while in the intersection of Lakeville was struck by the truck, which police think had run a northbound red light. Both vehicles came to rest in a small grove of trees adjacent to the Petaluma Poultry parking lot on the northwest corner of the intersection.

The woman driving the truck was taken to a hospital for injuries, but they were not believed to be life-threatening. Police are investigating whether the driver was impaired at the time of the crash.

Gongora Castaneda recently had taken over as owner of JJ’s Burger Joint in Novato. A crowdfunding campaign online to help his family with funeral costs described him as a “pillar to his family” and go-getter who always put his wife and three children first.

Thanks so much for all your support, in Honor to our so much loved Mario Gongora we are open again, he was a hardworking...

Posted by JJ's Burger Joint on Thursday, September 24, 2020

Attempts to reach his family Thursday evening were unsuccessful.

James T. Watkins, 41, of Cotati was arrested on suspicion of DUI and vehicular manslaughter after the Tuesday night crash on South McDowell Boulevard near Baywood Drive.

Police said Watkins was driving south on South McDowell when he drove onto the sidewalk just before the roundabout, striking Gongora Castaneda.

Two off-duty law enforcement officers and a nurse helped treat him before he was taken to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where he died.

Officers found Watkins in his Toyota Prius in the center of the roundabout. He wasn’t injured, but was taken to a local hospital for DUI testing.

Watkins has a pending court date from a 2018 DUI collision arrest in Sonoma County, police said. He was booked into county jail, but had been released on bail early Wednesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter. You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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