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Trial in Death of DA Investigator Enters Second Week

Ashley Johnigan, 24, is charged in the Highway 154 crash that killed Laura Cleaves

Jurors in the trial of Ashley Johnigan of Santa Barbara heard more witnesses testify Monday that she consumed several drinks in the hours before she left a Santa Ynez bar on May 1, 2008, got into her car to drive home and caused a collision that killed a veteran investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

Johnigan, 24, faces charges of murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury in the death of Laura Cleaves, 53, a longtime investigator and resident of Santa Ynez. The crash occurred on Highway 154, east of the intersection with Highway 246.

Cleaves was employed as a senior criminal investigator with the District Attorney’s Office. She also was a well-known horseback riding instructor, and led the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department’s mounted unit. She was married to sheriff’s Sgt. Steven Cleaves, and they were the parents of two grown daughters.

Because of Cleaves’ connections with the District Attorney’s Office, deputy attorney generals Michael Keller and Sarah Farhat are prosecuting the case against Johnigan.

The trial started Wednesday before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Rigali in Santa Maria, and is expected to continue for several weeks.

On Monday, Jessica Perez, who was with Johnigan at the Maverick before the crash, testified that Johnigan had “between four and six drinks” in a period of a couple hours, according to KSBY.

Johnigan was arrested with a .24 blood alcohol level, investigators said.

Other witnesses Monday said the defendant had previously driven while intoxicated, and that they had warned her to be careful, according to KSBY.

Late last week, Wayne Wilks, a bartender at the Santa Ynez Maverick Saloon, where Johnigan and her friends drank before the crash, testified that he served the defendant four or five drinks over the course of several hours. Wilks testified that Johnigan ordered tequila shots and chased them with Coke.

He then said that Johnigan had chosen hip-hop songs to play on the bar’s jukebox, but since the Maverick attracts many country music fans, Wilks suspected that other patrons would not appreciate Johnigan’s music choices. After he received some complaints from other patrons, Wilks testified, he skipped Johnigan’s choices and programmed the jukebox to play more country music.

Johnigan’s attorney, Robert Sanger, opened his defense last week by saying that his client, who is black, was uncomfortable in the Maverick Saloon, as most of its patrons support country music.

Later in the evening, Johnigan appeared drunk, Wilks testified, and he refused to serve her more alcohol. When she appeared ready to leave, Wilks and Johnigan’s friends tried to discourage her from driving, he said. When, instead, she drove away from the bar, Wilks said he called 9-1-1 to report her.

According to court testimony, California Highway Patrol officers in the area were dispatched to the call about a possible DUI driver, and found Johnigan’s car, a Mercedez Benz, pulled over along the side of eastbound Highway 154. They pulled up behind Johnigan, but she sped away from them and continued traveling east along the highway, according to testimony. Minutes later, Johnigan’s car collided with Cleaves’ Dodge Stratus, killing her.

Sanger told the court that Johnigan drove away from the Maverick to find a spot along Highway 154 in order to sober up for the drive home, but was startled by the CHP patrol car when it pulled up behind hers along the highway. He said that Johnigan did not know the car contained a CHP officer because it did not flash its colored lights.

After Johnigan’s car hit Cleaves’ vehicle, it hit a second vehicle, a Ford Escape, according to the CHP. The driver of the second car, Lisa Raines, of Oxnard, testified last week that she suffered from pain and stiffness after the crash. Johnigan suffered only minor injuries as a result of the collision, according to the CHP.

Noozhawk staff writer Laurie Jervis can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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