California

Multiple violations by Caltrans led up to homeless woman’s death, CHP report says

Caltrans clears homeless camps every day. Here’s what they look like inside

California’s homeless crisis is playing out on the state’s highways, where Caltrans is clearing dozens of camps every day. Here's the scene inside a camp near a Berkeley freeway in November 2018.
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California’s homeless crisis is playing out on the state’s highways, where Caltrans is clearing dozens of camps every day. Here's the scene inside a camp near a Berkeley freeway in November 2018.

Caltrans employees violated multiple policies leading up to the death of a woman who was crushed by the bucket of a front loader while sleeping at a Modesto homeless encampment last summer, according to a report by the California Highway Patrol.

The 324-page report obtained by The Bee says the employees failed to post 72-hour notices to vacate the encampment along Highway 99 south of Kansas Avenue, and that the driver of the front loader went to the site alone and began working without waiting for the CHP to first clear the site of occupants.

Brady Walker drove the front loader into a drainage ditch at 5:40 a.m., 30 minutes before sunrise on Aug. 1, after two homeless men told him no one was in there. He dropped the machine’s bucket on what he thought was just a pile of trash and debris and crushed the upper body of 32-year-old Shannon Bigley, killing her. As he was dragging the debris backward, he saw Bigley’s legs.

Walker was put on leave several months after the accident. After four months on leave, he returned to work in February following the completion of the CHP report. It’s unclear why he was put on leave more than two months after the accident. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“Mr. Walker, with full knowledge of his supervisor, commenced work alone, in the dark, and caused the death of Shannon,” said Eric Khodadian, the attorney representing Shannon Bigley’s father in a wrongful death lawsuit against Caltrans and Walker. “I can’t think of anyone else or any other profession or job where you can ignore obvious safety protocols, kill someone and keep your job.”

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Caltrans is on scene behind the American Budget Inn on the 700 block of Kansas Avenue in Modesto, Calif. on Wednesday morning August 1, 2018. Shannon Marie Bigley, a homeless woman was killed by a Caltrans worker during a homeless encampment cleanup. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

Neither Walker nor Caltrans faces any criminal charges. “We didn’t see any criminal liability based on the policy violations.” Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said via email on Wednesday.

Steve Crouch, the director of public employees for the union representing Caltrans maintenance workers like Walker, said the fault lies with the agency.

“It is not Brady Walker that is negligent here; it is Caltrans that is negligent for not doing years ago what I suggested they do,” Crouch said.

Crouch said Caltrans rejected a health and safety grievance he filed last April requesting the agency create special work crews to clear homeless camps and continues to regularly violate its own policies.

Crouch said the workers are not provided proper equipment, vaccinations, training or adequate pay to clean up sites that contain used syringes, flammable materials and human waste.

“It’s like taking a porta potty and turning it upside down and saying go clean that up over there,” he said. “Caltrans says safety is their number one priority, but they don’t practice what they preach.”

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CalTrans crews clean up a homeless encampment along State Highway 99 in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

The agency’s policies were developed as a result of lawsuits in 1992 and 2006, when homeless advocates sued the department, compelling Caltrans to take greater care in notifying homeless people about impending cleanups and in safeguarding possessions that state workers found at the sites.

A new lawsuit against Caltrans in Alameda County claims the department continues to violate those policies and the constitutional rights of the homeless to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction against Caltrans to follow the policies, which were developed to protect the property of homeless people but also likely would have saved Shannon Bigley’s life.

Before any work at homeless encampment cleanups begins, policy dictates the CHP must search the area to ensure all occupants have left. Caltrans workers aren’t even supposed to enter the encampment without the CHP, and certainly not alone.

The CHP was requested to assist on Aug. 1, but Walker went to the encampment 30 minutes before they arrived. Two officers got to the site minutes after Walker called Caltrans dispatch to report that he’d found a deceased person, apparently unaware at the time that he’d caused her death.

Walker told investigators that he drove the front loader into the encampment and honked its horn at two areas that contained tents. Two men came out of the second tented area, and Walker asked them if any of the items in the ditch belonged to them; they told him it was just trash, according to the report.

Walker said the lights on the front loader were on and “he could see really well” as he drove into the ditch and honked the horn twice. He then lowered the bucket of the front loader and drove in reverse to pull the trash into a pile.

“When he made his first pass, he saw a box move and that’s when he saw the legs of a person,” the report reads.

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A woman found dead along Highway 99 on Aug. 1, 2018, died when she was struck by heavy equipment operated by a Caltrans worker doing a homeless encampment cleanup. This was the area in which the woman’s body was found. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

Investigators asked Walker if he’d face discipline for working alone, and he said “no, that’s fine.” He said it was common and that he worked a modified schedule, coming into work an hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because he receives dialysis treatment on those days for kidney failure.

Walker provided investigators a list of prescribed medications he was taking but failed to mention the Hydrocodone, a narcotic, that was detected in a blood sample he gave voluntarily following Bigley’s death.

He later told investigators that he forgot about the Hydrocodone “due to being upset on the morning of the incident.” He said he takes it only at night and took it at 8 p.m. the night before the accident.

A Modesto police sergeant, a drug recognition expert who interviewed Walker shortly after the accident, said he saw no objective signs of intoxication. Two other experts could not say conclusively whether the levels of Hydrocodone in his system could have affected his ability to operate heavy machinery that day.

While Walker waited at the hospital to get his blood drawn for the drug screen, an investigator asked him “if everything he did at the scene would be a normal operation,” the CHP report states. “Mr. Walker answered ‘Yeah.’ Mr. Walker then stated ‘It will change now though, because I won’t go in there without CHP making sure everybody is gone.’”

The CHP not only is supposed to be on site when the cleanups are conducted, but also when the 72-hour notices are posted. They were never requested for that in this case because notices were never posted. Instead, Walker’s supervisor, Richard Carattini, gave verbal warning to people at the encampment the day before Bigley’s death. Carattini could not be reached for comment.

He told them they were working nearby and would be there later that day or early the next morning.

Carattini said he did not post the notices or give the requisite three days before returning for cleanup because two fires at the encampment in July made the site a safety hazard and warranted an emergency cleanup.

The CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team concluded that the fires alone were not enough to deem the site an immediate public safety threat.

“Mr. Carattini related Caltrans policy does not always work and that many times, Caltrans handles cleanups by themselves without CHP assistance,” the report reads. Carattini said it is difficult to get the CHP to assist using the program designed to request their help and that the request must be made a week in advance.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Caltrans said, “Our sympathies go out to the family of Shannon Bigley. We appreciate the CHP’s efforts in conducting a thorough investigation, however we are unable to discuss further due to pending litigation.”

Prolific violation of their own policies has Caltrans defending their actions in what attorneys for multiple plaintiffs say is a callous approach.

In the Alameda County lawsuit, Caltrans argues that homeless Californians on state property have no privacy rights and no protected property rights while they are “residing illegally on government property,” according to a court filing.

In its response to the complaint filed against Caltrans by Bigley’s father, Caltrans argues that Bigley was negligent in her own death because she “failed to exercise ordinary care at the time and place of the alleged incident.”

Attorney Khodadian said, “Given what we now know about what happened, I think it is particularly egregious that (Caltrans argues) Shannon was somehow negligent in her own death, that a woman crushed by machinery was responsible for her own death.”

The Alameda County lawsuit is awaiting judgment on a motion by the plaintiffs to get class action certification. Osha Neumann, one of the attorneys representing dozens of homeless who’ve had their property destroyed, anticipates that the ruling will come before their scheduled mediation the first week of June.

“Possibly, that will move Caltrans to consider settling …,” he said. “If not, we are going to go to trial.”

Shannon Bigley’s father’s case, as well as a separate case filed by Bigley’s husband, are scheduled for status conferences in August. Those cases are expected to be consolidated eventually.

And in November, Caltrans and the union representing maintenance workers are going to arbitration over the health and safety grievance. Crouch said, “Brady Walker is my star witness.”

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