It started as one of those sedate Lawrence Welk nights at the Philo Grange, last May 30th, with the Boonville Big Band Dance Concert in full denture-clacking swing, and it ended in a near-fatal head-on collision at Indian Creek, just up the road.
No one was killed, both drivers were alone, both were driving drunk, very drunk.
Some would say they both got just what they deserved. Or at least a down-payment on what they had coming.
When the case came to court last week one of the drunk drivers, Stephen Hunter, 36, of Ukiah, got another installment on the debt: He was held to answer on a strike offense violation of the vehicle code for willful endangerment causing great bodily injury (a broken femur) to the other drunk driver, Colter Millehrer, 26, of Corvallis, Oregon.
Hunter, limping into court on a cane, was also bound over on a charge of stealing an antique flugelhorn from the Boonville Big Band. Millehrer was not charged, except for the DUI.
Hunter’s frothing lawyer Christopher Brooke, the former District Attorney of Modoc County, claimed his client was the victim of the collision, not Millehrer.
Defense attorney Brooke presented a one-trick pony of a defense, repeatedly accusing the investigator, CHP Officer Brian Hanson, of incompetence, dereliction of duty, and even suggesting that Officer Hanson was lying on the stand.
We had heard that Brooke fled his post as DA in Modoc County because he feared for his life at the hands of Modoc law enforcement. Brooke's performance in Judge Moorman's court last week made it clear he wouldn't be law enforcement's favorite guy.
Officer Hanson calmly absorbed this frontal attack on his character and took the stand to testify that he'd been dispatched to Anderson Valley at 10:36 on the night of May 30th, 2015. When he arrived in Philo a half hour later, Anderson Valley's emergency responders were chewing away with the Jaws of Life to extract Millehrer from his crushed vehicle, and Hunter was being hauled off for an airlift to the trauma center in Chico. Hanson estimated that the vehicles had collided head-on at a closing speed of approximately 100 mph.
God indeed looks after drunks and idiots, and both these drunken idiots survived impact. As did the flugelhorn.
Hunter’s vehicle was in the wrong lane, the eastbound lane, even though his vehicle had been westbound at the moment of impact. And there were no skid marks behind Hunter’s vehicle; whereas there were skid marks (tire friction marks, the officer called them) behind Millehrer’s vehicle. The two smashed vehicles were 17 feet apart, having rebounded that far from the force of the impact! Millehrer’s vehicle was left straddling the center line at a slight angle. A great deal of debris was left on the roadway in the eastbound lane, evidence that it was the “area of impact.”
A CHP Officer in Chico went to the hospital and gave Hunter a field sobriety test. A blood draw revealed his blood alcohol level to be 0.16, twice the legal limit. Hunter told the Chico officer that he’d been on his way to Navarro.
Meanwhile, back on Highway 128 at the crash scene near Indian Creek, Officer Hanson spoke with Walter Kimmelman of the Boonville Big Band. Mr. Kimmelman said he saw Stephen Hunter making a spectacle of himself from Kimmelman's vantage point on the stage. Kimmelman said that Hunter was “loud, boisterous, and disruptive of the performance.” Kimmelman told the CHP officer that Hunter had been cut off from any more beer or wine, and as the band was packing up, they saw that an instrument case went missing. It was found in Hunter’s wrecked car and identified by Kimmelman as the antique flugelhorn that had been swiped from the Grange hall earlier that evening.
We were not told where 26-year old Colter Millehrer had been doing his drinking, nor how much, but he was undeniably intoxicated and, well, with all the tasting rooms on Highway 128, not to mention the restaurants that serve beer, wine and the hard stuff, it probably doesn’t matter. But Millehrer told the officer that when he crested the hill that drops down to the Indian Creek bridge, he saw headlights in his lane and slammed on his brakes, then attempted to turn right, but it was too late, and — bang! Millehrer had skid marks to back him up.
Defense attorney Brooke, continuing his attack on the CHP's Hanson, established that Officer Hanson had recently been assigned to the Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force. Deputy DA Joshua Rosenfeld objected to the relevance of the assignment, but Brooke only snickered as though it were obvious that an appointment to the Task Force was equivalent to joining a drug cartel.
Judge Ann Moorman sustained the objection to Brooke's irrelevant slander, much to Brooke’s chagrin.
Brooke: “You didn’t actually see my client’s vehicle moving in the oncoming lane, did you officer Hanson?”
Hanson: “That’s true, I didn’t see it.”
Brooke: “And so the only evidence you have is this statement from this drunk driver, Mr. Millehrer, that he saw my client’s vehicle coming at him when he crested the hill.”
Hanson. “No, that’s not true. There’s other evidence.”
Brooke: “The tire friction marks, yes — but you didn’t match those tire friction marks to the tires on the vehicle, did you Officer Hanson? No, you didn’t. In your incompetence and in your haste to blame this all on my client, you just merely assumed that…”
Rosenfeld: “Your honor, I going to object. This line of questioning is argumentative.”
Brooke: “Isn’t it possible that Mr. Millehrer was in my client’s lane and that he had to swerve into the other lane to avoid the collision — isn’t that possible?”
Hanson: “Anything’s possible, I suppose," Hanson conceded.
True enough, especially in this particular region where a local group recently held a seminar at the Grange “proving” that certain clouds and other airborne phenomena were actually visitors from outer space.
Brooke: “So, it’s just as likely that Mr. Millehrer was in the wrong lane and caused this accident, isn’t it Mr. Hanson — that is, if you were to be truthful about it?”
Rosenfeld: “Again, your honor, I object.”
Brooke: “Let me show you this photograph. See where Vehicle Two [Millehrer’s red SUV] is on the center line?”
Hanson: Yes, I see it.”
Brooke: “Well, if he turned to the right, as he said he did, how did he get over here to the left?”
Hanson: “He didn’t say he turned to the right. He said he attempted to.”
Brooke: “Mr. Millehrer was intoxicated?”
Brooke: “And you arrested him?”
Brooke: “And he said he swerved to the right and you believed him?”
Hanson: “No, that’s not what he said. He said he attempted to turn to the right.”
Brooke: “Couldn’t it have been Vehicle Two that was in the wrong lane?”
Hanson: “No, not according to my investigation.”
Brooke: “And why is that?”
Hanson: “Because Vehicle One [Hunter’s white sedan] took no evasive action, and also by the way the two vehicles came to rest after impact.”
Brooke: “But aren’t there endless possibilities?”
Hanson: “No, not endless.”
Brooke: “Let me rephrase ‘endless’ to ‘several’ possibilities.”
Hanson: “Okay. But it’s still my opinion that they impacted in the eastbound lane.”
Brooke: “What physical evidence do you have for that?”
Hanson: “The totality of the circumstances.”
Brooke went back to the beginning and started all over again. The cliché for repetition is beating a dead horse, but all the motor oil and antifreeze on the roadway didn’t look like blood, and the shattered glass and other debris, as Officer Hanson pointed out, indicated where the impact occurred, despite where the cars came to rest. But Brooke was tireless, and his frustration made him more and more abusive towards the officer.
In closing, Brooke wanted the blood test thrown out because it had gone from Chico to the Department of Justice in Eureka. The sophistry Brooke based this on was beyond a layman like myself, but the motion was nonetheless denied by the judge. Even so, Brooke continued to insist his guy was sober, and the officer was taking the word of a drunk as his only evidence.
Deputy DA Rosenfeld stated the obvious: The evidence all pointed to the fact that Hunter crossed the line and smashed into the oncoming vehicle, despite Mr. Brooke’s “impassioned” insistence to the contrary.
Judge Moorman said, “I’m gonna hold him to answer. Here’s why: The defendant’s car was in the wrong lane and took no evasive action”—
Brooke: “Maybe he went into the other lane as evasive action”—
Moorman ignored the interruption; she’d heard it several times already. “The officer did not compare the tread marks to the tires but they were fresh and it was his opinion that they were made by Vehicle Two. There’s no evidence to support the idea that Hunter was in his lane and moved into the oncoming lane to avoid a collision. And to say there’s no evidence he was impaired is to ignore the blood tests and the statements by Mr. Kimmelman who observed him at the Grange where he was apparently extremely intoxicated and had to be cut off. I’m also going to hold him to answer on the theft of the instrument.”
The Modoc attorney howled that there was no evidence that Hunter had stolen the flugelhorn, but no one was listening, and Brooke's drunken thief of a client was bound over for trial.
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ADDENDUM: From the AVA of June 3, 2015:
Terrible Head-On In Philo Saturday night about 10:30pm near the Madrones when a 1999 Chevy Cavalier crossed the yellow line and collided with a 1998 Subaru. Both parties required extrication from their vehicles by the Jaws of Life operated by the Anderson Valley Volunteers. A 36-year old Ukiah man, Stephen Hunter, identified as the driver of the Chevy Cavalier, was flown via Calstar helicopter to Enlow Hospital in Chico with major injuries including a broken femur. The 26-year old male driver of the Subaru, Colter Millehrer, a resident of Corvallis, Oregon, was transported via ground ambulance to Ukiah Valley Medical Center with major injuries, also including a broken femur. Both drivers were drunk.
The man who caused this accident, Hunter, was lurching drunk at Saturday night's big band concert at the Philo Grange. At least one concertgoer said the guy had lunged off into the night with a band member's trumpet.