On Sept. 15, 2012, Robin “Scott” Caldwell followed his wife, Denise, home from dinner in Rancho Cordova to their home off of Pony Express Road. Before they left, they visited in the restaurant, went to Scott’s truck and checked e-mails. Scott wasn’t paying too close attention to his wife’s car ahead of him when she turned off of Highway 50, on to Carson Road and on to Pony Express. But just after the last turn, at 10:13 p.m., he heard an explosion.
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Seconds later, when the gray cloud in front of him started clearing, he saw the scene: Denise’s red Suburu was flipped over, tangled into a raised silver Chevy pickup. Denise was dead.
Scott, the first witness in the trial concerning the vehicular murder and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated case against the driver of the Chevy, Joshua McCavitt, described the scene, but only after having to take a five-minute break when emotions overwhelmed him.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Michael Pizzuti said that McCavitt was going 57 mph around a 20 mph curve. His raised pickup climbed up Denise’s car, the license plate caused extreme trauma to her head and both vehicles flipped over. The vehicles were in the eastbound lane of Pony Express Trail, perpendicular to the roadway.
Scott “laid on the horn” to get the attention of the two Sheriff’s deputies he had seen parked around the corner. According to dashboard footage from Dep. Daniel Rath, the first car there arrived less than a minute after the collision. Rath restrained Scott, who could be heard screaming on the video, passing him off to his beat partner, Detective James Peterson. Peterson recalled Scott as “upset and screaming,” pacing in front of the cars. He moved him away while Rath began to survey the cars. Rath got no response from Denise.
“It looked real bad,” he recalled. She had a compound fracture in one arm, hanging out of the window. She was upside-down and bleeding profusely. She was not breathing and “appeared deceased.”
Then, from the passenger side of the pickup, Rath saw McCavitt crawling out. There was “an odor of alcohol on his breath and person.” Rath escorted McCavitt to his patrol car. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” played over Rath’s radio while McCavitt asked why the other car had been driving in his lane. He asked if there were other people in the car he hit. He said he had been going about 45 mph. “This is,” he said with a pause, “really crazy.” He said he had a beer or two, “nothing big.”
“But the story doesn’t start in 2012,” Pizzuti said, noting that McCavitt had multiple prior convictions of driving under the influence. He had also smoked marijuana earlier the evening Caldwell died. CHP Officer Ian Hoey, the investigative lead on the case, testified and showed in court the metal pipe, which he said was what McCavitt used to smoke the drug. McCavitt also admitted to smoking to Hoey. Hoey said the two cars had been “violently force(d) together.” He described it as “a mess.” He went back to McCavitt, read him his Miranda rights and began questioning him, administering a pre-field sobriety test.
McCavitt said he had been by the Walmart in Diamond Springs shopping. He appeared confused as to where he was, Hoey said, and confused where he had his beer, unable to name the bar. The information he gave was not consistent with the direction his car had been heading, Hoey said. After multiple tries, Hoey was able to get readings on a breathalyzer device: .118 and .120. Another officer later testified the device was properly calibrated. McCavitt chuckled while trying to take the breath test, unaware Caldwell was dead. He had bloodshot, watery, drooping eyes, Hoey said. His speech was slurred. He didn’t pass the breath test. Hoey arrested him for vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence. “Oh my god,” McCavitt said in response.
During the video, he only expressed sadness at the damage to his truck. In the ambulance after the interview, McCavitt admitted he had smoked marijuana and had more beers than he previously admitted to, Hoey said. “There was no remorse; he was more concerned about himself,” Hoey said of McCavitt’s demeanor. Under later questioning from defense attorney Arturo Reyes, Hoey noted he did not tell McCavitt of Caldwell’s death until he formally arrested him.
Over the next few days, Hoey investigated which bars McCavitt had been at, he said at the beginning of the second day of testimony of the trial. He was able to confirm McCavitt had been at the Rusty Nail Saloon through video footage. The bartender for that night, Corrie Bone, also testified McCavitt was there and said she served him a single Pabst Blue Ribbon that night. She said he seemed completely sober.
Reyes questioned Hoey about whether the officer had checked McCavitt for a concussion, and whether that or hanging upside down could addle him. Hoey said he didn’t check, and it is possible. If McCavitt had vomited, could it increase the alcohol reading on the Preliminary Alcohol Screening device? It would affect the reading, Hoey said, but that is why they wait 15 minutes before administering the PAS breathalyzer test.
Hoey told Reyes that, because someone died, he was sure to “dot the ‘i’s’ and cross the ‘t’s'” during his investigation. He told Pizzuti that the marijuana was secondary to his alcohol intoxication, and that McCavitt was “unquestionably” impaired by alcohol. After telling the man that Caldwell was dead, he said McCavitt still showed no remorse in the hours Hoey was with him.
Officer Jacob Nett, who diagrammed the scene for the official report, said the tire marks and gouges in the road were, in his opinion, consistent with a car traveling westbound in the eastbound lane. The marks were recent, determined by the color of the asphalt’s color.
An inspection of the vehicles showed that the collision was not caused by a mechanical problem, Officer Craig Zaragoza testified. There was no indication of skid marks on the cars, but that did not mean the marks were not created by the cars.
Narcotics Detective Eric Palmberg testified that on Aug. 7, 2012, he had spoken with McCavitt at his residence concerning marijuana. A search warrant was executed for a marijuana grow, and the men spoke for an hour. McCavitt, in a recorded interview, noted that he knew how different strains affected him. He noted he used between 1/4 of an ounce — worth about five to 10 joints — and an ounce per day, or about 24 pounds a year. He said the effects typically last “a few hours” and he uses in the morning and evening to manage pain, though did not specify what type of pain. His recommendation did not have any limits on usage.
The next witness was Christopher Lee, a criminologist with the Department of Justice who processed the blood sample from McCavitt. The result was a BAC of .12. He was given a hypothetical situation by Pizzuti, mirroring symptoms McCavitt had allegedly shown at the scene. Lee said someone with those symptoms was impaired.
Lee told Reyes that different people are affected differently by alcohol. The PAS readings were likely in the “peak” part of McCavitt’s alcohol consumption and dispersal into the bloodstream, though could have been in the “rising” part of consumption. There would have been no affect if the last time he ate, even a large meal, was at noon.
The final witness of the day was Christopher Port, who had been part of the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team for more than seven years. He was able to find the lightbulbs from the cars after he was asked to determine if they were on or not during the accident. Though he posed the question of how either car would get to the site of the accident sans lights, with both sun and moon having set and no ambient light, he said his conclusions for different bulbs ran from “indeterminate” to “outrageously on,” with the “on” being one of the most obvious situations he had seen “in a long time.” He noted, at least, that McCavitt’s high beams were on.
Testimony will continue Tuesday with Port first to the stand.