Top 10 stories of 2010: No. 10: CHP officer killed in crash near Paso

Editor's note: Today, we begin the Top 10 Stories of 2010, as selected by The Tribune's editorial staff. The series will run every day, culminating on New Year's Day with the top story.

Rain pelted the asphalt on a stretch of winding country road just south of Paso Robles on a recent afternoon. The corridor along South River Road near the intersection of Spanish Camp Road was quiet but for the few passing cars.

But on a June evening last summer, this same stretch of road was the site of a fatal crash that killed CHP officer Brett Oswald, 48. He was the first San Luis Obispo County-based CHP officer to die while on duty, according to the agency’s records.

Just after 6 p.m. June 27, Oswald had finished the paperwork on an abandoned Honda Civic left on the roadway’s edge. Oswald parked his patrol car behind the vehicle and placed orange cones around it.

“He did exactly what I would have done,” CHP Chief Adam Cuevas later said, adding that ultimately, officers have to count on other drivers to be safe.

As Oswald waited for the tow truck, 22-year-old Kaylee Ann Weisenberg sped around a curve in a Toyota Corolla — allegedly on methamphetamine. Her car careened into Oswald and his patrol car. Her attempt at braking was too late to prevent the crash.

Oswald died from his injuries the same day.

Weisenberg, now 23, faces a second-degree murder charge, carrying a potential sentence of 15 years to life.

Oswald is among 221 on-duty officers the agency has lost since 1929, according to CHP records.

The investigation

A dozen investigators spent about three months reconstructing the incident that led to Oswald’s death — combing through every detail from his procedure to Weisenberg’s speed.

The investigation found that she was driving 80 mph as she approached the scene. The speed limit is 55 mph. She struck Oswald at 67 mph after braking. Oswald was thrown “a significant distance” into the air, said investigating officer Scott Peterson, with the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.

Peterson said his team takes up to 55 cases per year for district offices lacking the resources to launch such involved investigations.

“We’re kind of the ‘CSI’ of freeways,” he said, referring to the popular television show about crime scene investigations.

Peterson said the crash was one of the hardest he’s had to reconstruct, likening its complexity to a tour bus crash that killed five people in spring 2009 on Highway 101 in Soledad.

The CHP’s Investigative Services Unit aided the team with its narcotics analysis, leading to several sources that could testify about Weisenberg’s drug use. The District Attorney’s Office may use that testimony in court, Peterson said.

On Friday, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled that Weisenberg would face four charges. Aside from second-degree murder and driving under the influence, the District Attorney’s Office is charging her with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and driving with a suspended license.

Remembering Oswald

Oswald is remembered as a dedicated 20-year veteran. His wife, Marlena Oswald, couldn’t be reached for comment but has told The Tribune that her husband “was the most amazing man.”

“I am truly blessed to have had him for the short time I did, “ she said when interviewed last summer.

At his July memorial, speaker after speaker recalled Oswald’s humor, solid work ethic and kindness.

His coffin, later draped in the American flag, arrived in a motorcade displaying dozens of flashing lights when it met roughly 1,000 mourners.

A procession of bagpipes led his body through a courtyard filled with uniformed officers from throughout the state.

His wife’s sorrow was palpable as she wept. She steadied herself on the two officers who somberly stood beside her, each wiping their own tears away.