A year after Starbucks fatal crash in Ventura County, charges against deputy seem unlikely

Fatal Car Crash

Johnny Corona/AP

Michael Cederland's Chevy Tahoe sits inside a Fillmore Starbucks after he crashed into it on Dec. 13, 2011.

Thursday marks a year since off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Cedarland suffered an apparent epileptic seizure and crashed his vehicle into a Ventura County Starbucks, killing an Iraq war veteran.

As the anniversary approaches, the dead soldier’s family continues to press the Ventura County district attorney’s office to file criminal charges against Cedarland; at this point, that seems unlikely.

“I’m not ruling anything out,’ Kim Gibbons, the Ventura County deputy district attorney in charge of the matter, told KPCC. He said his office is still "looking into some reports that were given to us rather late," while adding,  “I just don’t have any evidence at this point that I can use to prosecute.”

Update Dec. 13, 2012, 6 p.m. The Ventura County District Attorney's office announced it has "formerly rejected the Cedarland case." 

Family members of Sergio Mendez, 30, who was killed in the Dec. 13, 2011 accident, met in August with Ventura County District Attorney Gregory D. Totten and Gibbons, who had just completed his review of the case and was prepared to close it.

Gibbons said his office decided to continue its investigation after the victim’s mother, Cecilia Burgos of Florida, provided them with information about an alleged out-of-state crash involving the same deputy in 2003.

Burgos said an employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicle told her about the alleged accident last July. Burgos said the DMV employee told her she could not legally release information about the alleged accident because it happened more than three years ago.

DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza confirmed that, by law, most accident records older than three years are no longer public.

But as of Tuesday afternoon, “other than unsubstantiated allegations from Mrs. Burgos, I have not been able to find any evidence of an accident,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons said a search by a DA investigator indicated that Cedarland had previously held a Washington state driver’s license, but that the Washington State Department of Licensing had no record of any accident or violations of the law while he held that license.

When asked whether his investigator had conducted a search of the California DMV records back to 2003, Gibbons said he was not able to confirm such a search, and added only that “the case is still under investigation.”

The fatal accident that killed Sergio Mendez happened just after 7 pm on Dec. 13, 2011, when Cedarland, of Pasadena, suffered an apparent epileptic  seizure and fell unconscious behind the wheel. His Chevy Tahoe veered 70 yards across traffic, jumped two curbs, and then crashed through the Ventura Street Starbucks in Fillmore.

Cedarland's SUV pinned Mendez, a National Guardsman and former Marine, against the front door frame of the store. Mendez died of internal injuries.

The accident occurred just six weeks after the California Department of Motor Vehicles lifted a suspension on Cedarland’s license for a prior lapse of consciousness. In May 2011, the deputy reportedly suffered a seizure while at work that prompted the DMV to suspend his license two months later.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department reported that toxicology tests taken after the accident showed no alcohol or drugs in Cedarland’s bloodstream.

Last April, KPCC learned that Cedarland continued to hold a valid California driver’s license after the fatal crash, despite the previous seizure-related suspension of his license, his admission to officers at the scene that he had blacked out behind the wheel, another more serious seizure in January 2012, and his diagnosis of epilepsy. All of that information was disclosed to Ventura County sheriff’s deputies who investigated the incident. 

After KPCC reported the information and posted the police report online, the DMV again suspended Cedarland’s license.

 A spokesman for the LA County Sheriff’s Department said Cedarland – who was not required to drive as part of his duties and who took a leave of absence after his second license suspension – returned to work on Dec. 2.

This story has been updated.

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