California Highway Patrol Officer Joelle McChesney sat at the witness stand on Wednesday in her full uniform and readily acknowledged her past misconduct.
Yes, she conceded, she made multiple no-contest pleas to criminal charges over 10 years ago.
A barrage of questions followed: Have you ever falsified a police report? Did the past events have any bearing or influence on the triple-fatal J-59 vehicle collision from Oct. 21, 2016, when she was the first law enforcement to respond?
In a tone that was occasionally defensive but always adamant, she countered, “No.”
“I made a mistake in my personal life. I am a human and let my emotions take over me, which is not normal,” McChesney said.
Her past conduct is now a point of contention in the defense of Danny Anderson, a Sonora-area doctor accused of causing the triple-fatal collision by crossing over the double-yellow lines to pass two vehicles in front of him.
Much of the court proceedings Wednesday afternoon in the Tuolumne County Superior Court focused on McChesney’s credibility as a law enforcement officer and investigator.
McChesney pleaded no contest to three counts of misdemeanor accessing a computer to alter, destroy or use data for a criminal purpose in 2009, following an arrest in Yolo County while she was stationed at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento.
In 2008, jealous that another CHP officer she was dating may have been seeing another woman, McChesney drove past the man’s house twice, she said. She first ran a license plate number using her CHP identification number in another person’s computer at the Woodland CHP office and, on a second occasion, ran the license number again so she could see “what the person looked like.”
She drove from Woodland to Rocklin with her dogs in the car and hovered outside the woman’s house, she said, but did nothing.
She later pleaded no contest to the three misdemeanor counts, and was charged with misdemeanor vandalism in Placer County. Though she denied the allegation of keying the woman’s car, she said she pleaded no contest because she knew she would not be fired and wanted to move past the incidents.
“I made a mistake, and this is part of the consequences. I just wanted it done,” she said. “It still haunts me, but it was what I thought was best.”
McChesney was suspended following an internal investigation and later employed by the Woodland-area CHP office for about seven years, the Modesto CHP office for less than a year, and was hired by the Sonora-area office in March 2016.
At times, the questions from Johnson seemed to distort the relationship of the two events, which were tied together only by McChesney’s involvement.
“The case we’re here from today? Or the one from 10 years ago?” asked a confused McChesney.
But Johnson’s reliance on the previous no-contest pleas — it was the first subject on which he questioned McChesney, but the last topic brought up by District Attorney Laura Krieg — revealed the core strategy of the defense to undermine any of her testimony.
During a session of court closed to the jury and McChesney, Johnson asked for permission from Judge Donald Segerstrom to ask whether she had ever been cross-examined in court before on the no contest pleas.
As the first law enforcement officer on the scene, she responded to accident victim Dorothy Eismann, 66, who was seated behind her mangled 2009 Toyota Camry.
Dorothy Eismann told McChesney that they had been driving northbound behind a slow vehicle when a white SUV or truck “with ants in their pants” pulled into the southbound lane and passed her vehicle and a gray van driving in front of her.
After the vehicle passed, McChesney said Dorothy Eismann related “she was unable to react” to the instantaneous impact that followed.
During the head-on collision, the Eismann 2009 Toyota Camry hit head-on with a 2002 Lexus RX300 on J-59 near Bonds Flat Road. Tina Hoffman, 51, Trista Hoffman, 16, and Reinholt Eismann, 72, died. Dillon Hoffman, 17, sustained two broken legs. Annie Johnson, 16, sustained brain hemorrhages.
Brian Ogilvie, a ground paramedic based out of Coulterville with Mercy Medical and part of the first paramedic team on scene, testified that John Reinholdt Eismann was pronounced dead after going into cardiac arrest at the scene while in an ambulance.
Jenny Nieves, a Tuolumne County ambulance paramedic, testified she attempted CPR on Trista Hoffman, who was laid down next to her brother on the concrete after they were extricated from the vehicle.
“She stopped breathing,” Nieves said, and she was unable to resuscitate her.
A series of 20 photographs played across a TV in the courtroom revealed the harrowing aftermath.
Inside the Camry, a driver-side airbag was stained with blood. The front of the vehicle was crushed and totalled.
Beside the front, driver’s-side wheel of the Eismann vehicle lay a yellow “fatal blanket” and concrete spattered with blood. Tina Hoffman, 51, the mother of Trista and Dillon, had been thrown from the car as it rolled across the southbound lane, into the northbound lane and down an embankment beside the road. Her body came to rest beside the car.
The Lexus was barely recognizable as a car. The roof was peeled away, and pieces of the car were scattered along the embankment.
One witness who came upon the accident, Pepito Zamaripa, a Merced resident working as a union electrician on the Tuolumne County Juvenile Detention Facility at the time, said he drove up to the accident and saw the carnage.
“I remember getting out of my truck and saying ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God, what happened here?’ ”
McChesney said she encountered Anderson at the scene, who claimed to have “come upon” the collision and did not express any involvement.
As McChesney pointed out Anderson sitting at the defense table, he raised his left hand with an open palm high in the air toward her.
During a subsequent investigation into her own dashboard camera and surveillance footage culled from the nearby Houseboat Mini Mart, a 2014 to 2016 Acura MDX was identified as the vehicle that had passed the others, she said.
Dillon Hoffman testified on Friday that he watched a northbound white vehicle pass and hurtle toward his own while his sister was driving.
Working with CHP Officer Jason Austin, McChesney said she recognized Anderson’s name from a list of owners of Acura MDXs registered in Tuolumne County.
“That’s my doctor,” she remembered saying. “It’s not my doctor, I don’t know him, but I recognized him as the doctor on scene who pronounced Tina Hoffman dead.”
Johnson repeatedly inquired why the CHP had not done further investigation into another white SUV following in a separate procession of cars that was viewed on McChesney’s dashboard camera, or into Christina Hodge, a person who claimed to have seen a pedestrian hit in the road by a person passing cars while driving southbound.
McChesney said the office was not able to contact the owners of some of the other vehicles involved, but noted, as in the case with Christina Hodge, only certain information was deemed plausible based on other witness testimony.
“It doesn’t fit your theory,” he said of the Christina Hodge call placed to CHP dispatch. “You’re the decider in this investigation of what the truth is?”
Additionally, Krieg provided photographic evidence of tire tracks on gravel and friction marks on the concrete to indicate that Trista Hoffman swerved to avoid a head-on collision with another vehicle.
Before the start of the trial Wednesday morning, two female jurors were dismissed following separate, private conferences with Segerstrom.
“There are some people that have had some things come up,” he said.
Two male alternate jurors were selected at random. The seated jury is now eight men and four women. Four alternate jurors remain.
The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in the Historic Tuolumne County Courthouse on Yaney Street.