Woman who killed tow truck driver is sentenced for latest DUI

ppemberton@thetribunennews.comApril 30, 2014 

A woman who killed a tow truck driver while driving under the influence in 2001 was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison for DUI.

It was the second time Denise Gafner Mendoza, 55, of Paso Robles has been convicted of driving under the influence since she plowed into 20-year-old Tanner Rothfleisch as he attempted to hitch a stalled car on the Cuesta Grade.

After she was sentenced to seven years in prison for the accident that killed Rothfleisch, she was sentenced to a year in jail in 2008 for DUI. She also had a DUI conviction two years before the fatality. Each conviction involved driving while under the influence of prescription drugs.

Prior to Mendoza’s sentencing Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Sandra Mitchell noted the dangerous pattern.

“Unfortunately, it is inconceivable to understand why the defendant, time and time again, continues to drive while under the influence of a controlled substance, placing the community in danger,” she said, reading from the county probation report, which recommended a seven-year term, as did the prosecution.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Rothfleisch, working for College Towing, was attempting to hitch a stalled Volvo station wagon to a tow truck as Mendoza drove down the Grade in a Ford Bronco. As Rothfleisch stood on the side of the road, the Bronco slammed into him, throwing him 100 feet and killing him instantly.

Mendoza was eventually convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter in that case.

In 2007, after Mendoza had been released from prison, a police officer found her unconscious at 13th Street and Riverside Avenue in Paso Robles while sitting behind the steering wheel of her vehicle, which was in drive mode but not moving. Mendoza, whose head was found on the steering wheel, was wearing a nightgown but no shoes.

The most recent incident occurred while Mendoza was still on probation for the previous offenses.

Last September, she was driving on Highway 101 in Atascadero when a CHP officer pulled her over for swerving. The officer reported that her speech was slow and slurred and her eyelids were droopy.

In each case, she told law enforcement that she had been on prescription drugs.

In the current case, she told the county probation department she was diagnosed with a kidney stone disease at age 13 and has been taking opiate-based prescription drugs ever since.

“I didn’t think this would ever happen again,” she said, according to the department’s pre-sentencing report. “I didn’t ever want to hurt anyone again. I took my normal dose of meds before I went to work, like I do every day.”

Mendoza expressed surprised at her potential sentence.

“I can’t believe what I’m getting,” she said. “Everything that has happened to me is because of my meds and kidney problems. … They think I’m a horrible person, but I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Rothfleisch’s mother, Becky Nilson of Holtville, said she doesn’t especially want to see Mendoza waste her life in prison. On the other hand, she said, Mendoza has not addressed what Nilson believes is an addiction.

“You can take the enabling route and make excuses or hit it head-on and turn things around,” said Nilson, who does volunteer work with rehabbing drug addicts in Southern California. “I hope this time she goes away that she actually turns her life around.”

Mendoza’s attorney, Gael Mueller, said Mendoza has not taken the pain relievers while in jail and will remain off the drugs.

“Once you’re off it and you know you are off it, it will change your life, and I think that has occurred,” Mueller said.

While Mendoza will be headed to prison — with credit for 432 days served — Mitchell also argued for a 10-year license revocation, which was granted by Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy.

But Nilson worries that Mendoza might ignore that order and continue to drive while under the influence.

“If she has to have these meds — and that’s up for debate — by now she should know never to drive,” Nilson said.

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