Crime

'I just remember screaming.' Fate of driver in deadly Santa Margarita crash goes to jury

Jessica Lea Allred and her attorney, Patrick Fisher, listen to witness testimony during Allred’s trial on felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence in an April 2016 crash that killed 56-year-old Santa Margarita resident Denise Fox.
Jessica Lea Allred and her attorney, Patrick Fisher, listen to witness testimony during Allred’s trial on felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence in an April 2016 crash that killed 56-year-old Santa Margarita resident Denise Fox. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Twelve jurors are weighing evidence in the vehicular manslaughter trial of a former San Luis Obispo resident accused of causing a fatal head-on collision in rural Santa Margarita while driving drunk from the Pozo Stampede in 2016.

After Jessica Allred testified in her own defense, closing arguments were presented Tuesday in the vehicular manslaughter case, capping a week-long trial that included testimony from California Highway Patrol officers, lab technicians, blood experts and concertgoers who had interacted with Allred at the Pozo Stampede earlier the day of the crash that killed Denise Fox of Santa Margarita.

The District Attorney's Office, represented during the trial by Deputy District Attorney Chase Martin, alleges that a blood alcohol test proves Allred was at more than twice the legal limit to drive and that she was seen weaving, listening to loud music and "dancing" in her car prior to the crash.

Fox
Denise Fox was killed April 30, 2016, in a head-on collision near Santa Margarita. Here, Fox is pictured with her nieces in an undated photo. Courtesy photo

But defense attorney Patrick Fisher argues that witnesses back up Allred's claim she only had three beers over four hours and that "the most important piece of evidence in this case" — her blood sample — was mishandled by the hospital and Sheriff's Office.

Jurors got the case late Tuesday and are expected to resume deliberations Thursday.

Deadly crash

While returning to San Luis Obispo on Highway 58 from the Pozo Stampede event at the Pozo Saloon on April 30, 2016, Allred allegedly drove her 1999 Saturn across the solid double yellow line on the two-lane highway and collided with a 1996 Toyota driven by Fox.

Fox, 56, was pronounced dead at the scene from what would later be ruled severe blunt force trauma injuries. Allred suffered two fractured ankles and a compound fracture in her leg and was taken to the emergency room of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where a blood test examined by the Sheriff's Office came back with a 0.17 blood alcohol content. The legal limit to driving is 0.08.

Allred, 24, formerly of San Luis Obispo, has pleaded not guilty to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and driving under the influence, charges that carry sentencing enhancements for causing death.

If convicted of all charges and enhancements, Allred faces up to 10 years in state prison.

According to Martin, in order to find her guilty of the manslaughter charge, jurors have to find that Allred drove under the influence, committed an infraction (crossing over double yellow lines) while she drove, committed that infraction with gross negligence, and that the grossly negligent conduct resulted in Fox's death.

Gross negligence is defined as "more than ordinary carelessness."

Aside from acquittal, jurors can also find Allred guilty of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, a lesser offense.

Allred testifies

Prior to closing arguments Tuesday, Allred took the stand in her own defense.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she recalled starting the day on April 30, 2016, with a full breakfast, leaving her home around 1 p.m. with her boyfriend to pick up deli goods, and driving to the Pozo Saloon.

Allred testified that her boyfriend drove on the way to Pozo and that she had never driven the road herself. Allred had a night shift at the San Luis Obispo bar and grill where she worked, however, and planned to drive back without her companion, who was camping with friends.

At the group's campground about a quarter mile from the venue, she and her boyfriend played beer pong with the group, though she didn't drink alcohol as part of the game, she testified. Instead, over the roughly four hours she was at the camp and the concert, Allred testified that she drank three beers total, as well as water, and ate some of the food they had brought up.

She testified that she drove from the event at about 6 p.m. after finishing her last beer at about 4:45 p.m. and didn't feel any effects from the alcohol.

Witnesses previously testified that Allred was swerving on the road, with one alleging she nearly drove off the road. Another witness, however, didn't see any swerving and another contradicted his account of whether he saw swerving, according to testimony.

Angela Carr, whose mother, Denise Fox, was killed in a car crash April 30, 2016, explains the photos, letters and notes that help her to remember her mother.

On the stand, Allred admitted that at one point while driving west on Highway 58, she looked away to change a song playing on her cellphone and briefly swerved onto the shoulder before correcting. She said the incident scared her and she put her phone away.

It is unclear how much further she drove, but Allred testified that the next thing she remembers is waking up on her back on the pavement and being lifted onto a flat board by emergency responders.

"I just remember screaming and being in extreme pain," Allred said.

In his closing argument, Martin recounted witness testimony from a Sheriff's Office forensic lab specialist that a person would likely have had to had at least 4.5 drinks and as many as 6.1 drinks to reach 0.017 blood alcohol content. Martin also asked jurors to question whether Allred drank during the beer pong game.

"It's more likely she was drinking more, and the drinks were different (than beer)," Martin said.

He also noted that conditions were clear and dry and there was no other reason but impairment for her entering the opposing lane. A witness had previously testified that the location of the crash contained a right turn immediately following a crest on the road.

"Of course it had curves — every road has curves in it," Martin said. "Other motorists that day negotiated that road."

As he finished, Martin held up a photo of Fox for the jury.

"This poor woman had no chance," he said. "She was unfortunate enough to be on the road with Ms. Allred."

Fisher countered Martin's argument about the road, arguing the particular stretch is "extremely dangerous" because of a blind turn motorists can't see until they've cleared a small hill.

"It's something that can't be ignored, the dangerousness of this road," Fisher said.

Fisher also cited a handful of witnesses that testified in Allred's defense, who stated that Allred was not exhibiting any signs of impairment and they didn't have any reason to prevent her from driving. Though some were previously her friends, Allred hadn't seen many of those witnesses since the crash, he said.

Fisher also called the prosecution's case "dirty," tainted by glaring inconsistencies between the CHP officer who oversaw the blood draw at the hospital and the nurse who performed it. Though CHP Officer Barry Williams previously testified he watched the nurse do the draw with a syringe and iodide, the nurse testified that she drew the blood with an IV and used an alcohol-based rubbing solution on Allred's arm, which violates protocols for DUI blood testing.

The nurse, who testified she doesn't remember much about the blood draw and had never taken blood for a DUI test, also testified that initials purported to be hers on the blood sample label weren't written by her.

"It's a false blood result," Fisher said. "This is not the time to have these kind of mistakes. This is a serious case."

Fox's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Allred. A case management conference in that case is scheduled for late July pending completion of the criminal case.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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