Charlotte Espinosa details the March 26, 2016 collision, the new difficulties of dealing with life afterward
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
VISALIA – One of Tulare County’s most devastating DUI murders came to an end last week when Judge Juliet Boccone sentenced Cheyenne Wyllie to life for two counts of second degree murder.
Wyllie, 28, pled no contest in August for her DUI collision on March 26, 2016. Wyllie was driving with a .21 blood alcohol content and texting while driving. She was driving her 2013 Ford Edge westbound on Avenue 200 when she ran the stop sign and plowed through a 2012 Honda Pilot traveling southbound on Spacer Drive, which is not controlled by stop signs.
The impact of the crash killed 10-year-old Jamie Espinosa and her 69-year-old grandmother Angelita Espinosa and sent Jamie’s parents to the hospital. The driver of the Pilot, 43-year-old George Espinosa Jr., spent four months in the hospital including 13 surgeries to stabilize his condition. His wife, 42-year-old Charlotte Espinosa, was released the next day with minor injuries but is still grappling with grief from the tragic family trip to a relative’s house from Yosemite National Park.
Charlotte read a letter aloud to the court before Wyllie’s sentencing, recounting the accident and life since.
“That night was a blur for me, yet the memories are also so vivid… When I checked on Mommy Angelita after the crash, she was so still and so white,” Charlotte stated. “Your actions killed her instantly.”
When Charlotte went to check on her daughter, she realized Jamie was badly injured and on the verge of death.
“When I tried to lift her head, all I felt was the wetness in my hands. I thought it was her sweat, but it was all blood… Her aunt, Maila, gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation even as she was spewing out blood from her mouth, nose, and ears. Such a violent end for such an innocent, gentle soul,” Charlotte stated.
George, left home for Las Vegas with nothing but a mesh covering his belly. Charlotte said in her statement that the accident tore his aorta and severed his femoral arteries. He needed 44 pints of blood to survive. For the following 17 months he had to change his dressing before they could apply skin grafts. But even the skin grafts are fragile. He cannot lift more than five pounds otherwise he’ll risk tearing it. George has another major surgery on the way to hopefully improve his quality of life by reinforcing his abdominal muscles.
“George was cruelly robbed of everything so dear to him that night – his mother, his daughter, his financial freedom, and his health,” Charlotte said.
Charlotte added that caring for George, who had not been able to care for himself and still on the road to recovery, has taken its own financial toll. The family’s insurance has paid millions in medical expenses, but the family still has major out of pocket costs. In all, it has cost them dearly in their earnings and savings.
“George is unable to work. I am working 3 jobs to provide a comfortable life for my family – part time and per diem jobs that pay less but affords me the flexibility to be able to pay my husband’s medical needs. I was on track to retire at age 52. Now I may have to work till I’m 70,” Charolette stated.
Wyllie expressed her remorse in a letter she submitted to Judge Baccone. In the letter she stated that she has condemned herself to a mental and physical prison, along with the Espinosa family.
“I regret my action and apologize for the damage I have caused. I understand that I must be punished, I know one day when I am released I will be able to help others not make the same mistakes,” Wyllie’s letter stated.
Charolotte concluded her statement to the court directly addressing Wyllie, considering whether 19 years and four months is a fair amount of time served, before she can perhaps be free.
“Nine-teen years from now , Jamie and mommy will still be buried at the cemetery, and George will still be a prisoner inside his disabled body and that is if he’s even fortunate enough to survive his future surgeries …. yet you have the opportunity to be [free],” Charlotte said. “I am not sure how the next few months or years will unfold, but I know that nothing can replace what you took from us.”
And while she will be eligible for parole after 19 years and four months, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said that his office will contest any opportunity for her early release.
“We will honor the victims by never forgetting this tragedy. The Office of the District Attorney will appear at any potential parole hearing and argue against the possibility of early release,” Ward stated.
Part of the prosecutors’ case was the evidence that she knew what she was doing, and had other options. Most important were her time and date stamped text messages to and from friends and family.
During a three-day preliminary hearing from May 15-17 Anthony Benitez, an investigator with the Tulare County District Attorney’s office, searched the data from Wyllie’s phone from 10:22 p.m. on March 25 to 10:30 p.m. on March 26, 2016. Rumery asked why Wyllie was listed as a contact if it was her phone to which Benitez said he thought it was some type of needed registration for a Web based application for attending College of the Sequoias.
The phone’s data showed that Wyllie had been in contact with an ex-boyfriend, David Silva, both by calling and texting before and after the wreck. One of the texts from Silva to Wyllie read: “Obviously you’re drunk, so you’re not driving” to which a message from Wyllie’s phone replied “I am driving.”
A text message from a different phone number, which did not appear under Wyllie’s name in Silva’s phone read: “Oh, [expletive], I just wrecked my car. I can’t feel my hands. I’m so scared. I don’t know what to do.”
During the course of the investigation, Lee also interviewed Osvaldo Beltran, a friend of Wyllie’s. Lee said Beltran described the evening leading up to the crash as beginning with two beers at a late lunch in Visalia, then a trip to a gas station in Exeter where they purchased an 18-pack of Michelob Ultra and Fireball Whiskey which they drank at a friend’s house, Jessica Leslie, in Exeter. Lee said Leslie told her that she personally witnessed Wyllie drink four beers and take three shots of whiskey. According to Lee, the small group of friends at the party told Wyllie not to drive when she left the party.
At 2:12 p.m. on March 26, Wyllie’s phone sent a text to Beltran reading “I told you I want to drink lol.” At 5:37 p.m. another message went to Hager reading “i am getting drunk with jezzie lok.” At 6:23 p.m. Wyllie’s phone sent a text responding to the question, “What are you drinking?” that said “Beer fireball and crown apple.” At 7:36 p.m. Wyllie’s phone received a text from a contact listed as “mother” asking “Who’s driving u home?” at 8:20 p.m. In response to a text asking if she was driving, Wyllie’s phone texted at 9:13 p.m. that “I am driving” and “going ton Tulare” shortly after. At 10:21 p.m. she continued texting Silva and said “Please come get me.”
Sliney said the text messages were key in showing that Wyllie should be charged with murder and not vehicular manslaughter.
“The text messages themselves go directly to malice in this case because she’s aware that she’s under the influence – one is it shows she has a plan to go out and drink, she chooses to drive when she knows she’s gonna go out and drink,” Sliney said. “The next thing it shows is that she acknowledges that she’s under the influence.”
During the same hearing Deputy District Attorney John Sliney called on CHP officers, a phlebotomist and investigators with his own department to show that Wyllie had been drinking for most of the day and had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit when she crashed into the Espinosas.
Conversely, Wyllie’s defense attorney Richard Rumery sought to discount what he claimed was circumstantial evidence that Wyllie was the driver of the vehicle, that she was the person corresponding with others via text messages and that she was drinking and driving.
Officer Chris Mellow, a 10-year veteran of the CHP, was among the first on the scene arriving shortly after firefighters. He described the scene where shattered glass, vehicle fluids and pieces of plastic and metal were scattered across the rural intersection surrounded by alfalfa and wheat fields.
He said he first observed Wyllie standing next to a car parked on the south dirt shoulder when she approached him. Mellow said Wyllie initially said she was fine but when he asked a second time if she was injured she complained of chest pains and then began to cry “a little” before she stopped crying and became “disinterested in what was going on.”
Mellow said Wyllie told him she was traveling to her father’s house in Tulare, northwest of the intersection, but repeatedly pointed east. He examined her car and noticed that the passenger airbag did not deploy, a common safety feature in newer cars when there is not enough weight in a seat to trigger the sensors, meaning there was no one in the passenger seat. A CHP airship also surveyed the area with infrared and did not find any trace of people hiding in the surrounding alfalfa and wheat fields.
Rumery asked if the officer had checked to be sure if the airbags had been shut off manually prior to the accident to which Mellow said he had not checked.
“So because of that, you can’t say for certain that there wasn’t somebody else in that vehicle, correct?” Rumery asked. “Correct” the officer replied.
Officer Ryan Lee, who has been with CHP for more than 8 years, said he had investigated hundreds of collisions, about a quarter of them being DUI arrests. Lee said he was dispatched to the collision at 10:10 p.m. and arrived 20 minutes later. Lee was the officer who extensively interviewed Wyllie at the scene. He said Wyllie repeatedly pointed in the wrong direction from where she said she was headed and that she was traveling alone in her car. She also claimed that the Honda pulled out in front of her. Lee testified that “the statement of her travel stated that she was traveling eastbound, and the physical evidence and points of rest didn’t match the statement.”
As Lee walked Wyllie away from the chaotic scene, he “noticed that she had the odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from her breath and person.” After she admitted to consuming two Michelob Ultras, Lee conducted a field sobriety test on Wyllie, including the horizontal gaze nystagmus, one-leg stand and walk known as a “three-test battery,” a proven method in determining impairment. Lee said Wyllie exhibited 20 of the 23 signs he was trained to see, “a 65 percent likelihood of a .10 blood alcohol content or higher.” At 11:06 p.m. Lee said he administered a preliminary alcohol screening device and she blew a .229 blood alcohol level, nearly three times the legal limit. Lee said at 11:08 p.m. Wyllie blew a .226 blood alcohol level. At 11:15 p.m. Lee placed Wyllie under arrest for DUI.
Wyllie then selected to have a blood test done rather than a breath test. Lee took Wyllie to the Visalia CHP office where a lab technician drew blood for the final BAC test.
Eduardo Ruvalcaba, a phlebotomist at Mineral King Toxicology in Tulare for four years, said he arrived at the CHP office in Visalia after midnight on March 26 to draw blood from Wyllie.
“[R]ight before I got there I was notified it was going to be a big case, to make sure I dot my I’s and cross my T’s,” Ruvalcaba said.
Sandy McVeigh, a toxicologist of 11 years at Mineral King Lab, said she received the vials of blood at 1:30 p.m. on March 28 and tested them on April 4. McVeigh, who had done thousands of alcohol tests like those on Wyllie’s blood samples, said the test resulted in a .21 percent BAC.