A 27-year-old McKinleyville woman who ran over and killed a man walking along Central Avenue has been held to answer for gross vehicular manslaughter, felony drunken driving and hit-and-run.
Judge Kaleb Cockrum held Shala Bianco to answer after listening to about two hours of testimony from California Highway Patrol Officer Domenic Previte, testifying as an expert on vehicle collisions and DUI investigations. Previte was one of the first officers at the scene, where he found 47-year-old Clinton Deckert lying dead in the middle of the road. Later, he interviewed Bianco and arrested her.
It was about 7:30 a.m. on May 18, 2019, and Bianco was running late for work at Denny’s restaurant in McKinleyville. On Central Avenue near Six Rivers Brewery, her Toyota Rav 4 drifted off the road and struck Deckert, who was walking to McDonald’s in McKinleyville to meet with a co-worker and discuss possible jobs for the day.
Bianco sped away from the scene after the collision, calling 911 about 40 minutes later to report being the driver.
“She’d been, the entire night prior, at a friend’s house partying,” Previte testified under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Whitney Timm. “She also said she was ‘definitely stoned.’ “
During the party, Bianco told the officer, she used Ativan, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. She got no sleep at all. Right before she left to go to work, she smoked some marijuana and then drank a glass of champagne because she had “cotton mouth.”
Cellphone records show Bianco placed or received 13 calls during the 40 minutes before she called law enforcement. Previte then drove to her home and administered a field sobriety test, which she failed badly.
“I was concerned for her safety,” the officer said, “because she nearly fell over several times.”
He also did an initial blood alcohol screening, with the results a .154 and .152, or nearly twice the legal limit for driving. This was 90 minutes after Deckert was struck.
Timm asked whether Bianco remembered hitting someone.
“She remembered hitting the pedestrian … she indicated she knew she should have stopped, but she was freaking out and didn’t deal well with stressful situations like that.”
Asked if Bianco would have fled if she wasn’t under he influence, Previte said Bianco told him she would have left “one way or the other.”
Although witnesses said they saw the black SUV swerving wildly from side to side before the fatal crash, Bianco’s opinion was “she had been driving great and the pedestrian was in her lane.”
But witnesses reported Deckert was well off the road, near a grassy embankment. Investigators found tire impressions in the grass, and on the road there was fresh grass that had been dislodged from the bank. When he was struck Deckert flew into the air, then his body slid and came to rest in the road, witnesses reported. Deckert’s shoes were found 8 to 10 feet from his body, and his baseball cap was 110 feet away.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Manny Daskal, Previte said Deckert was carrying an “obviously used” meth pipe and a small bottle of vodka. Previte didn’t remember whether the bottle was open. Deckert’s blood was taken during an autopsy two days after his death. Previte was not allowed to testify to the toxicology results because he had no personal knowledge of how the sample was processed.
Witnesses said Deckert appeared to be walking normally, no staggering or stumbling. He frequently walked from his home — a transient camp on the river bar near Mad River Bridge — to the McDonald’s in McKinleyville to meet with his co-worker
There were also witnesses who saw the Rav 4 speeding through McKinleyville after the collision. Smoke or steam was pouring from the engine. One man said the vehicle nearly hit him.
During arguments after Previte’s testimony, Daskal said Bianco’s actions did not amount to gross negligence.
“I don’t think the People have established gross negligence,” Daskal said. “I think it was ordinary negligence.”
He said Bianco was driving an estimated 45 mph, just 10 miles over the speed limit. And the impact “was not that far over the white line (and) in the middle of a curve.” Previte had described the curve as so gentle, he could negotiate it at 100 mph in his patrol car if he wanted.
Also, when Previte and a partner re-enacted the collision, with the partner standing where Deckert was hit and Previte driving up Central Avenue, they determined Bianco could have seen Deckert from 385 feet away. But Previte is 6 feet tall and Bianco “is much shorter,” Daskal said.
Daskal said the only evidence that Bianco was under the influence of drugs was her own confession. She was never tested to determine the level of drugs in her system.
Timm responded that Bianco had been up all night drinking and taking drugs and knew she was unfit to drive. She was driving erratically before and after she struck Deckert, the prosecutor said, pointing out that she almost ran over another person.
Judge Cockrum struggled with whether to hold Bianco for gross negligence, finally deciding that with the “probable cause” standard for preliminary hearings, he would do so.
Bianco’s trial is scheduled for May 5. But with the current backlog of cases locally, that date is highly unlikely.
Bianco was in the courtroom during the hearing, sitting in the jury box and wearing a blue jumpsuit and a mask. After the hearing she was escorted back to jail, where she has now spent nearly two years. Bianco is the single mother of a young son.
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