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Bartender: Defendant drank before fatal crash

/ Source: Santa Maria Times

Wayne Wilks, a bartender at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, testified Thursday that he served Ashley Johnigan four or five drinks in the hours before she was involved in a car crash that killed a veteran investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.

Wilks said he later tried to stop Johnigan from getting behind the wheel, and called 9-1-1 when she drove off before he could speak to her.

The bartender was one of several witnesses who testified Thursday during Johnigan's trial on murder and other charges stemming from the May 1, 2008, wreck that killed Laura Cleaves, 53, of Santa Ynez.

Cleaves was a senior criminal investigator with the District Attorney's Office who also taught horseback riding and was head of the sheriff's mounted unit. She was married and the mother of two grown daughters.

Johnigan, 24, of Santa Barbara is accused of driving drunk when her car smashed into Cleaves' work car shortly before midnight on Highway 154, near the intersection with Highway 246 in Santa Ynez. Cleaves died at the crash site, and Johnigan suffered minor injuries.

After Johnigan's Mercedes Benz hit Cleaves's Dodge Stratus, it hit a third car, a Ford Escape, according to the CHP.

The driver of that car, Oxnard resident Lisa Raines, took the witness stand Thursday, and said that she experienced mild neck pain right after the crash, but later suffered from worse pain and stiffness as a result of the collision.

Johnigan is charged with murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and two counts of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury.

Her trial started Wednesday before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Rigali in Santa Maria.

Due to Cleaves's close connection to the District Attorney's Office, the case is being prosecuted by deputy attorney generals Michael Keller and Sarah Farhat, who took turns questioning their witnesses Thursday.

Wilks said that he was one of three bartenders working at the Maverick Saloon the night Cleaves was killed, and that he had no alcohol to drink.

Johnigan, whom he first saw at the bar around 7:30 or 8 p.m., was ordering tequila shots and chasing them with Coke, he said. The shots were served in slightly bigger glasses than normal shot glasses, Wilks said.

Johnigan selected hip-hop songs to play on the jukebox, but Wilks said that he knew that the country music fans at the bar would not appreciate the hip-hop, and he received a few complaints. So, he skipped all her songs and played country music instead, Wilks testified.

When Johnigan asked why her songs weren't playing, Wilks said he bought her a shot to appease her.

"She seemed OK. She wasn't slurring or stumbling or anything," he said.

Later in the night, Johnigan appeared drunk, Wilks said.

"She was stumbling around. Her words were slurring," he testified.

Wilks said he cut her off from being served any more alcohol at the bar that night.

About 11:30 p.m., a woman who seemed a little distressed asked for a glass of water for a girl sitting in her car, he said.

The woman asked him to come with her and convince the girl not to drive, Wilks testified, and he complied.

However, "she had already left the bar, the parking lot," Wilks said. "I ran back into the bar and called 9-1-1."

Johnigan's attorney, Robert Sanger, said during his opening statement Wednesday that the evidence will show that Johnigan, being a black woman at a country western-themed bar, felt uncomfortable to begin with.

Johnigan, who Sanger said has a history of being victimized by sexual abuse, left the Maverick in a panic when she felt threatened by looks from member of the Rancheros Visitadores, a group of men who come to the area once a year as part of a trail ride, Sanger said.

She drove off to find a place to park and sober up along Highway 154, he said, but was startled by a CHP patrol car that pulled up behind her parked car; she did not recognize it as law enforcement because the car did not flash its colored lights.

That's when Johnigan sped away and crashed into Cleaves's car.

Sanger's opening statement was contrary to Keller's, who said the evidence will show that Johnigan chose to drive drunk, knowing full well the dangers of driving while intoxicated.

Wilks said Thursday that Johnigan never seemed afraid or uncomfortable the night she was at the Maverick.

During cross-examination by Sanger, Wilks said the Visitadores are generally white, rich and older. Local women sometimes flirt with them at the Maverick, he said.

Among the other witnesses who testified Thursday was Shea Nelson, who said she saw Johnigan stumble and fall on the porch of the Maverick.

"I could tell that she was very drunk," Nelson added. Johnigan, whom she didn't know personally, didn't seem uncomfortable or afraid, she said.

The trial is scheduled to resume with more witnesses for the prosecution at 10:30 a.m. today.

August 28, 2009