Editorials

Death toll at Oceano Dunes: At least 44 OHV accident fatalities since 1992

Oceano Dunes — the largest and busiest campground in California

California State Parks is working on a new long-term plan for programs, facilities, campgrounds and off-highway vehicle activities at the Oceano Dunes, the largest and busiest campground in the state, and the only state park that allows off-road v
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California State Parks is working on a new long-term plan for programs, facilities, campgrounds and off-highway vehicle activities at the Oceano Dunes, the largest and busiest campground in the state, and the only state park that allows off-road v

There’s no definitive record of fatal accidents at the Oceano Dunes, where people have been driving all manner of vehicles since the early 1900s.

We’ve pieced together a chronology from the past 27 years based on news reports, mostly from The Tribune and its predecessor, The Telegram-Tribune, and records from the County of San Luis Obispo.

A caveat: The list may not be all-inclusive, and it does not include other types of accidental deaths, such as drownings. Nor does it reflect major injury accidents, though they appear to have been frequent, particularly on big holiday weekends.

Some examples:

  • During Labor Day weekend in 2001, there were six arrests for drunken driving and seven injury accidents, including one with critical injuries. At the time, a supervising ranger told a reporter it was “on par with a normal holiday stretch.”
  • Over the 1996 Memorial Day weekend, 15 people were hospitalized for injuries that included three broken backs.
  • And in 1981, Margaret Wilson, 29, of Clovis died over Memorial Day weekend when the vehicle she was in collided with a Jeep. In all, there were 80 accidents with injuries that weekend; 200 citations issued for speeding and muffler violations; and four arrests for drunkenness or drunken driving.

Keep in mind, management of the dunes has gotten much more restrictive over the years, both in terms of the numbers of users allowed in the park and rules and regulations, including requirements for helmets and other safety equipment.

Amazingly, there was even a time when it perfectly OK to a carry an open beer while driving around the dunes — as long as the driver wasn’t legally intoxicated. That changed on Aug. 24, 1998, when a state law made it illegal to simultaneously drink and drive at any state recreation area, including the dunes.

“We don’t want people to develop the bad habit of drinking with one hand and driving with another,” said Jack O’Connell, who was a state senator at the time.

Still, alcohol was cited as the cause in a few of the fatalities listed below. Other accidents were blamed on excessive speed; being ejected from vehicles; or collisions with other vehicles. In some cases, though, the only information provided was a name, age and city of residence, if that.

Fatal accidents at the Oceano Dunes SVRA

July 13, 2019: Alan Chernitskiy, 18, of Sacramento, was following another rider off a 30-foot dune when he was thrown from hihs motorcycle and hit the ground.

July 11, 2019: Mario Olivas, 48, of Glendale, Arizona, died after he was ejected from a motorcycle in a large sand dune bowl. Authorities said he was wearing a helmet that was improperly secured.


June 22, 2019: Shawn Joseph Imlig, 37, of Brentwood died after his ATV was struck by a side-by-side. The driver of the other vehicle was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

May 26, 2019: Kristopher Mancebo, 24, of Tulare died after the sand car he was driving flipped three times. He was ejected from the vehicle; a passenger had minor injures. Neither man was wearing a helmet.

April 19, 2019: Chor Vang, a 34-year-old father of three from Sacramento, was flung from his ATV at the top of a dune — authorities believe he was attempting to stop — and was then struck by the vehicle.

April 12, 2019: Narcissa Lichtman, 44, of San Jose died after the ROV (Recreational Off Highway Vehicle) she was in crashed and rolled down a 25- to 35-foot dune at speeds estimated at 60 mph.

N/A, 2018: Male suffered fatal injuries after crashing ATV; no details provided.

June 17, 2016: A 20-year veteran of the Sanger Police Department, Rodney Jones, died when his off-road vehicle landed on its roof at the bottom of a 15-foot dune. A passenger was uninjured.

Dec. 6, 2015: Francisco Javier Gonzales Casillas, 42, of Richmond died in an ATV collision.

Sept. 4, 2015: Jose Raul Sanchez Garcia died in an accident; no details were reported.

Aug. 30, 2015: Leo Esqueda, 27, of Fresno died in a rollover when he failed to navigate a steep dune and lost control. He and passenger, who survived the crash, were both thrown from the vehicle as it rolled.

April 4, 2015: Edwin Baker, 21, of the Bay Area died when he drove off a large dune, lost traction and landed out of his vehicle. He was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.

Dec. 28, 2014: According to a lawsuit, Bryan Tatum, 52, of Grover Beach was driving on the beach when he stopped and stepped out of his GMC truck on a straight stretch of beach and was struck and killed by a Chevy Suburban. The lawsuit filed by the victim’s daughter alleges the driver of the Suburban was distracted and looking down at the time of the accident.

Aug. 25, 2013: Felipe de Jesus Amezcua, 19, of San Leandro, died in a solo motorcycle accident; no details were provided.

Aug. 5, 2011: John Edward Leano II, 31, of Canyon Country died in a solo motorcycle accident; no details were provided.

March 5, 2011: Jose Lopez Jr., 37, of Visalia died in an ATV accident; no details were provided.

N/A, 2011: Male died after crashing ATV on dunes; no details were provided.

May 24, 2009: EMT and sheriff’s Search and Rescue volunteer Christopher Meadows, 24, died when his ATV crashed as he was responding to a report of a person with a broken leg. “Some have called him a hero, but he was quite simply doing what he loved. He was doing what he had signed up to do,” his family wrote in a letter to The Tribune.

There are several memorials to Meadows in San Luis Obispo County: A stretch of Highway 101 is dedicated to him, and a scholarship fund established in his name has awarded more than $110,000 to students in the emergency medical field.

March 19, 2009: Jerry Franklin Holsapple, a Turlock father of three, 57, died after losing control of his sand rail. He was not wearing full-body restraints, according to park officials and was ejected from his vehicle, causing serious head injuries. A passenger in the vehicle was wearing restraints and escaped injury.

Nov. 9, 2008: Michael Knodel, 24, of Chowchilla died when his ATV collided with a truck at the crest of a dune. “If either one had been four seconds ahead or four seconds behind, the probably would not have collided,” a park spokesman said. “All reports we got was that it was just an unfortunate accident.”

Aug. 10, 2008: Joaquin Florentino Perez Monreal, 26, of Santa Maria died in a single-vehicle accident near Competition Hill. No further details were available.

March 18, 2008: Lucas Adam Stelzriede of Contra Costa County, age not given, died at French Hospital Medical Center of injuries sustained when he attempted to jump his motorcycle and crashed.

Feb. 18, 2008: Duane Allen Blake, 39, of Cupertino died at Marian Medical Center of injuries sustained when he lost control of his motorcycle as he crested a dune and hit the ground near the dune’s base.

Jan. 11, 2008: Renee Delynn Sherer, a 24-year-old mother of two from Oceano and certified midwife, died of injuries she sustained when she was struck by a pickup truck. The driver of the pickup had reportedly been “recklessly driving in circles” near the area where Sherer had been standing. He was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol.

Oct. 20, 2007: A 17-year-old boy died after crashing his quad during a benefit race. Maxwell Niederhauser of Parowan, Utah, was riding in the fourth annual Oceano Dunes Beach Race and Festival to benefit spinal cord research.

Aug. 18, 2007: A 4-year-old boy from Los Angeles County died after being run over by a pickup truck in a camping area. The boy, Micheal Valdez, had been sitting near the truck, according to a witness, when the truck’s owner moved his vehicle to make room for other campers; he told rangers that he had looked behind his truck before moving it. The death was ruled an accident; neither the driver of the truck nor the parents were cited.

N/A, 2007: A vehicle backing down a dune overturned, killing the driver; no details were provided.

July 17, 2006: Kevin Caetano, 22, of San Jose died at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center of injuries he sustained when his ATV went airborne and landed him head first.

July 1, 2006: Jerry Carter, a 27-year-old father of two from Bakersfield, died of massive chest injuries after a pickup truck racing over a dune became airborne and partially landed on Carter’s vehicle. Three other passengers in Carter’s ATV were injured. The driver of the pickup, a 24-year-old Atascadero man, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

Carter’s wife, Paige Carter, told a Tribune reporter she didn’t want the accident to spark a debate over whether the park should remain open. “I think that accidents happen, and it was just a freak accident. I think that he would be extremely upset if they (closed the park) because of him.”

N/A, 2006: A collision between two ATVs killed one; no details were provided.

Oct. 8, 2005: Javier Lombera, a 30-year-old Whittier man, died when he went over a 60-foot drop on a quad-runner.

July 16, 2005: Travis Michael Dreger, 21, of Brentwood died when he was thrown into the air while driving an ATV over a series of small dunes. Authorities, who reported that Dreger had been wearing all the proper safety equipment, called it a freak accident.

Nov. 2, 2004: Brian Lee Polito, 18, from Tucson, Arizona, died at French Hospital from injuries he sustained in a single-vehicle motorcycle accident. He had been riding with a friend but had disappeared behind a dune, so it was unclear what happened. He was wearing a helmet.

October 2003: Connie Sue Cross, 52, from the Fresno County community of Selma, died in an ATV accident. She had been following her daughter down a steep dune; both mother and daughter were thrown from their ATVs. The daughter was not seriously injured, but her mother was thrown over the handlebars and hit her head on her daughter’s ATV.

Aug. 1, 2003: A passenger in a dune buggy, 39-year-old Bradely Newton of Indiana, died after he was ejected from the vehicle.

July 26, 2003: Jaime Perez, a 9-year-old boy from the Sacramento area, was walking in the dunes when he was struck and killed by a motorcycle. The driver of the motorcycle, a 17-year-old boy from Bakersfield, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

July 12, 2003: John Main, 27, of Moorpark died of severe head injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Information about the accident was sketchy; Main had been riding alone at the time of the crash. He had all the appropriate safety gear, and the bike appeared to be in good working condition.

Jan. 20, 2002: A 19-year-old man from Trabuco Canyon died when his motorcycle fell off the steep, 20-foot leeward side of a dune. The accident victim was not identified.

July 7, 2001: Rick Trotter, 45, of Etiwanda died at the Arroyo Grande Community Hospital emergency room from injuries sustained when his quad rolled over the backside of a dune and landed on top of him.

July 1, 2000: Aaron Scott Jackson, 21, of Alta Loma died after riding his motorcycle off a dune slipface. He suffered fatal chest injuries after he flew 50 feet in the air and landed on his bike.

Nov. 28, 1997: Deanne Michelle Setterlund, 36, of Ceres and her 7-year-old son, Shannon, died on the scene after their off-road vehicle plummeted off a sand dune and crashed. Her husband and daughter suffered serious to moderate injuries. Brian Wayne Setterlund, 35, was driving the dune buggy that became airborne and went over a 30-foot drop. All four passengers were wearing seat belts, but no helmets, which were not required for dune buggies. The accident was witnessed by crowds of people gathered for Thanksgiving weekend.

March 30, 1996: Abram Forde Brown, 22, of Clovis died when he was backing his VW Baja Bug over a series of dunes and drove off the top of one. The vehicle crashed and rolled. Brown, who was not wearing a seatbelt, sustained fatal head injuries.

April 30, 1994: Cathy Furnas, 25, died when a Chevy Blazer she was in flipped on its way down a 50-foot dune.

July 4, 1992: Richard David Peralta, 27, of Pasadena died when his motorcycle became airborne and crashed into the side of a sand dune. Witnesses said he had been traveling at a high rate of speed.

This story is being updated as additional fatalities occur at the Oceano Dunes.

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