A woman who hit and killed a tow truck driver while high on prescription drugs has had two DUI arrests since her release from prison, including one in which a police officer found her unconscious at the wheel of her vehicle, court records show.
Denise Gafner Mendoza, 56, of Paso Robles is being held at County Jail, charged with felony driving while under the influence related to a September incident that occurred on the same road as the fatal crash.
Mendoza, who will appear in court again in January, has pleaded not guilty.
The fatal crash occurred Sept. 10, 2001, when Mendoza — then on probation for a 1999 DUI — swerved down Cuesta Grade as she headed toward San Luis Obispo in her Ford Bronco.
At the same time, Tanner Rothfleisch, a 20-year-old employee with College Towing, was preparing to hitch a stalled Volvo station wagon to a tow truck. As he stood on the side of the road, Mendoza’s Bronco slammed into Rothfleisch, throwing him 100 feet and killing him instantly.
Mendoza’s attorney at the time said she took pain relievers because of chronic pain caused by a long history of medical ailments.
“Almost every part of her body’s been through surgery,” Ilan Funke-Bilu told a judge in 2002. “This is not a woman who has decided to get high on drugs. Her body is almost a medical school example of how much pain a body could withstand.”
Mendoza pleaded no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
As part of her restitution, she was required — at the request of the victim’s family — to pay for a sign that still stands at the accident site, stating: “Please don’t drink and drive. In memory of Charles ‘Tanner’ Rothfleisch.”
“I figured when she traveled that road, she could remember him that way,” said Rothfleisch’s mother, Becky Nilson, of Holtville.
After Nilson and other family members spoke at Mendoza’s sentencing in 2002, they hoped to forget about the defendant.
“I rarely think about her, if ever — until this came up,” Nilson said, referring to Mendoza’s current case.
Friends of her late son, she said, still live in San Luis Obispo. And when they discovered Mendoza — who has married since her vehicular manslaughter conviction — was facing DUI charges again, they informed Nilson, who wrote a letter to the District Attorney’s Office to voice her concern.
“Gafner was on probation when she killed Tanner for a previous conviction for driving under the influence,” she wrote about Mendoza, using the woman’s maiden name. “When is enough enough?”
“I had to stand up and do something so she wouldn’t do this to another family,” Nilson said.
But the current case isn’t the first time Mendoza has been arrested since her manslaughter conviction.
On June 16, 2007, a police officer found Mendoza unconscious at 13th Street and Riverside Avenue in Paso Robles. Mendoza’s car was facing the wrong direction and was in drive mode but not moving. Mendoza’s head was on the steering wheel.
The responding officer, Kelly Dawson, roused the driver.
“Her eyes were very glazed over, and she looked like she was struggling to mumble, but no words were coming out,” Dawson testified at Mendoza’s preliminary hearing for that case.
Mendoza was wearing a nightgown but no shoes, he testified. Dawson said he had to help her out of the vehicle, holding her in a bear hug so she wouldn’t fall on the ground. When a medic arrived on the scene and tried to garner information from Mendoza, the only thing the medic could comprehend was the word “dilaudid,” which is a painkiller.
While her defense attorney argued that Mendoza lost consciousness because of a heart condition, a physician called by the prosecution testified that Mendoza had overdosed on opiates, which caused a seizure.
Eventually, Mendoza pleaded no contest in that case and was sentenced to a four-year prison term, though all but one year was suspended.
By Sept. 27 of this year, Mendoza was back on the road but still on probation. While driving on Highway 101, near the San Anselmo exit, she was allegedly swerving over the center median and past the right shoulder when a CHP officer pulled her over.
“I noticed that she seemed impaired, right off the bat, to me,” Officer Kenneth Sonniksen testified during her preliminary hearing in the current case. “She did not seem right. … She was very off balance, nearly fell to the ground as she exited the vehicle.”
Mendoza told police she was again on dilaudid, along with morphine and other prescription drugs.
Mendoza’s attorney, Ron Crawford, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Mendoza is due in court for a trial setting conference Jan. 6.
If the case goes to trial, Nilson said, she and her surviving children plan to drive from their home close to the Mexican border to attend. That way, she said, Mendoza will have to once again think about the consequences of her actions.
“My children want to go up and be in court and let her see us again,” Nilson said.
If convicted, Mendoza faces a seven-year prison term.