Lydia Casares was driving two of her friends home from Cache Creek Casino in the early morning hours of December 16, 2014, when her vehicle encountered a large fallen tree across Highway 16 near County Road 81. By the time she saw the tree, it was too late to react and she ended up striking it causing massive damage to the vehicle.
At least two other vehicles hit the same tree. However, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office charged Ms. Casares with gross vehicular manslaughter charges when one of her two passengers, Patricia Peyton, 55, who was in the right rear passenger seat, died from injuries sustained from hitting her head on a center console, as she was not wearing a seat belt.
Ms. Casares tested positive for the use of methamphetamine and marijuana, although she insisted that she had used them hours before the accident and the effects had worn off.
Ms. Casares and a third woman, Tammy Vanderford, only suffered minor injuries.
However, the facts did not warrant the gross vehicular manslaughter charge and Judge David Reed dismissed the manslaughter charge following a January 4 preliminary hearing. The DA’s office attempted to file vehicular manslaughter charges, a misdemeanor, before settling the case on the possession of methamphetamine charges, a misdemeanor, under Prop. 47.
Lydia Casares and Tammy Vanderford sat down with the Vanguard last week to describe the events on that fateful event. They made a night run to the casino, the two of them driving together and Ms. Peyton meeting them separately.
“We ran into Patty (Peyton) at around 4:30 or 5 (am),” they described. “Patty had just gotten there and she wanted to get something to eat.” The ladies were planning to get something to eat and go to one of their sisters’ place in Esparto.
They ended up caravanning with some other ladies also going to Esparto. Both ladies believed that all three had buckled their seat belts when they left the casino.
However, at some point after Ms. Peyton purchased a ham sandwich, she may have taken off her seat belt to give Ms. Casares a bite. Ms. Vanderford gave Ms. Peyton a bite of her ice cream. “I reached back to give her my ice cream and by the time I turned back like this…[all] I [saw] was the trunk of the tree,” Ms. Vanderford said.
The tree had fallen completely across the road. A westbound traveler headed toward the casino had hit the tree first. That was quickly followed by Ms. Casares driving a 1999 GMC Yukon and then the vehicle behind them, their friends, hit the tree as well.
Ms. Vanderford described it: “The curves coming out of the casino, we’re coming out of that turn… right at Road 81… we’re coming out of that curve and as we come out, there’s that tree (lying across the road).”
“I remember hearing Lydia scream, I screamed, Patty we never heard a word out of,” she said. “When the wreck was over, me and Lydia both get out of the vehicle and Patty was in a slumped position… but she was still sitting on the seat.”
Ms. Casares told the Vanguard that, after the accident, they couldn’t find Ms. Peyton initially and thought she had been thrown out of the car.
Ms. Vanderford said, “I thought she was just sitting there with her head down and she was going to pop up any minute.”
When they did find her, slumped over, Ms. Casares said she couldn’t feel a pulse, but one of the ladies thought she felt a weak pulse. But the other lady couldn’t. Tammy Vanderford said, “I felt her hand, there was nothing.”
“Blunt trauma force to the head” was the cause of death.
It took 45 minutes for the CHP to arrive at the scene. It had rained heavily during the night and was foggy between Woodland and Road 81. But it was clear at the scene. Workers started cutting the tree away before the CHP even arrived.
Ms. Casares said that, prior to the crash, she saw a big arch and a gap (between the branch and the trunk) and three logs. “There was no missing it, it was all across the road,” she said, and they were just coming out of the 45 mph curve. “There was no way to stop, no nothing.”
The entire front was caved in from the collision from the tree and the other two vehicles were in similar position.
But Ms. Casares was the only one charged. “I had the death in the car for one, and when I got to the hospital, they found drugs on me,” she explained.
Ms. Casares said the officer was reluctant to charge her with a DUI and, during the preliminary hearing at the end, acknowledged that she had no way to avoid the accident as the conditions were very dark and the tree was completely across the road.
She said that she wanted to get the tragedy behind her and so she pushed for a speedy trial. But with barely two months passing, it was clear that, for both women, the incident was still raw.
They still haven’t had a chance to properly mourn the tragic passing of their friend.
“Not a day goes by without me thinking about it,” Ms. Vanderford said.
“When the attorney told me that they dropped (the manslaughter charges), I instantly started crying,” Ms. Casares said. “Now I can mourn Patty,” she said, as she started crying again.
—David M. Greenwald reporting