It all happened within two to three seconds, a survivor of a Oct. 21, 2016, triple-fatal J-59 collision said on Friday at the Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Dorothy Eisemann, 68 at the time of the accident, testified that a white vehicle “whooshed” by her 2009 Toyota Camry at a high speed, heading northbound in the southbound lane.
She watched an oncoming, southbound 2002 Lexus RX300 swerve to the shoulder to avoid an impact, and a whirlwind of dust clouded her windshield.
The white vehicle that passed “disappeared.”
“I remember thinking, think before you speed. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh,” she said.
Another fraction of a second and Dorothy Eisemann saw the 2002 Lexus RX300 veer into her lane. There was an audible and violent “thud.”
Her car came to a stop and she turned to the front passenger seat where her husband Reinholt John Eisemann, 72, was seated. They were coming home from Merced, where they visited a doctor’s office and enjoyed lunch at In-N-Out.
“You have to stop at In-N-Out,” she recalled earlier in her testimony, with a rare smile.
She didn’t pass out, but her husband was unconscious, battered and bloody from the collision. Dorothy Eisemann’s voice began to quaver with emotion. Her husband tried to speak, but only uttered “inaudible words to form a sentence.”
She never heard him talk again. Reinholt John Eisemann was pronounced dead at the collision scene later that day.
Through most of the trial on Friday, Dr. Danny Anderson, the Sonora-area doctor accused of causing the accident, sat motionless or took notes on a legal pad in front of him. His engagement in the proceedings on Friday often wavered between oblivious and earnest, but he became acutely perceptive each time his lawyer, Tom Johnson of Sacramento, minced the statements of the witnesses to reveal alleged inaccuracies in their recollection.
Eisemann did not remember any vehicle following her, she said, and Johnson frequently made note of her statement to investigating CHP Officer Joelle McChesney about an “overwhelming hunch” that a “white pickup” passed her before the collision.
But accident witness Joe Zertuche, following at the rear of a procession of vehicles in a 2011 Subaru Outback that were rounding a curve near the J-59 intersection with Bonds Flat Road, was intransigent in his testimony that he watched a white SUV pass the double yellow lines.
“I saw a vehicle start to pass. It really caught my attention because that’s a dangerous place to pass,” he said. “I hoped the car would pass okay, but it didn’t.”
During Danny Anderson’s preliminary hearing, Zertuche and Johnson sparred over Zertuche’s resolute conviction that Danny Anderson’s vehicle, a white Acura MDX third in the procession of cars, was the one to have passed.
A surveillance video from October 21, 2016 at the Houseboat Mini Mart in La Grange repeatedly flashed across a television screen in the courtroom on Friday during District Attorney Laura Krieg’s questioning, indicating to a procession of an unidentified gray van, the Eisemann Camry, Danny Anderson’s Acura MDX, a many-second gap, then an unidentified white SUV and Zertuche’s Subaru Outback.
All the parties involved acknowledged the objective accuracy of the footage, but Zertuche’s recollection of the events instigated Johnson’s repeated allusion that the unidentified white SUV may have been the vehicle which passed the other cars.
Zertuche asserted that the “nondescript” white SUV ahead of him in the procession did not pass any vehicles, but that he was “positive” he was the first vehicle on scene at the collision.
“Some things are engraved permanently in my mind. Some secondary things that weren’t important to me are normal recollection,” Zertuche said.
But that apparent incongruity, and Zertuche’s statement during the preliminary hearing that he contacted the California Highway Patrol the night of the accident rather on the actual date he called them on October 24, 2016, resulted in repeated circuitous questions and appeals for reaffirmation from Johnson.
“Do you say things that you are certain about that you are absolutely incorrect about, then change your testimony?” Johnson asked Zertuche.
Johnson relayed Zertuche’s statements from the preliminary transcript while Anderson silently mimicked the shape of the words in Zertuche’s direction.
In multiple moments, Anderson mouthed, “the car that passed.”
Zertuche’s confused and defensive responses were characteristic of the Friday trial. Like Eisemann’s testimony which followed after, Zertuche appeared frustrated by Johnson’s litigious sense of accountability for precise language.
At times, Zertuche appeared teary-eyed and upset. Once, while waving his arms during a statement, he amplified a knock of his hands against the courtroom microphone.
“I can see you’re getting frustrated,” Johnson said to Zertuche.
The event was traumatic, Zertuche said, and he was shocked when he left his car and saw the victims in their vehicles. Zertuche said he lingered at the scene for an unknown amount of time, but left before law enforcement arrived.
“I walked around and realized I couldn’t help in any way,” he said.
During the collision, Dorothy Eismann in her 2009 Camry collided head-on with the 2002 Lexus RX300 driven southbound by Trista Hoffman, 16, on J-59 near Bonds Flat Road. Tina Hoffman, 51, Trista Hoffman in the Lexus, were pronounced dead at the scene following the collision. Backseat passengers of the Lexus, Dillon Hoffman, 17, sustained two broken legs, and Annie Johnson, 16, sustained brain hemorrhages.
Annie Johnson, now 17, struggled to remember specific details of the accident and only revealed the benign after-school moments just preceding the crash.
During the bus ride home from Sonora High School to a stop near J-59, she told a joke to her friend Gary, she said.
In a soft tone, on the verge of grief, she recalled Trista Hoffman driving the car. She was seated in the back seat next to her brother, Dillon Hoffman, but she could not remember exactly where.
Trista Hoffman was driving “fine,” she said.
She listened to a song on her phone, and she next remembered regaining consciousness in a rehabilitation center. She never saw the phone again or knew what happened to it, she said.
“Do you remember being in an accident?” Krieg asked Annie Johnson.
“They told me I was. I don’t remember that,” she said.
Bill Posey, a toxicologist, testified that during a routine drug screen of Trista Hoffman’s blood, no drugs or alcohol were detected.
Former CHP Sgt. Shawn Snyder also testified to the details of a supplemental report he wrote on February 16, 2017, which related to Danny Anderson’s demeanor just following the collision.
We observed Danny Anderson providing patient care, Snyder said, while Diane Anderson, who is charged as an accessory in the case, appeared “visibly shaken and distracted” behind him.
Danny Anderson said “he had come upon” collision and stopped to render aid because he was a doctor, Snyder said. Later, Snyder watched them walk away from the accident, arm in arm, while Diane Anderson rested her head on her husband’s shoulder. Danny Anderson stared “blankly out at the road in front of him,” Snyder said.
“As new information came in during this prolonged investigation it became clear to me that Mr. Anderson’s statement was deceitful,” he said. “It became apparent to me that his behavior that I observed was much more important than I originally thought.”
Sitting at his seat in the courtroom, Danny Anderson shook his head repeatedly and audibly sighed.
Johnson asked why Snyder wrote his supplemental report on the same day as another CHP officer wrote another supplemental report for the case.
Krieg asked pointedly if Snyder planned to “conspire” with other CHP officers or the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office and asked, “can I order you to do anything?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Snyder responded, while some people in the courtroom laughed.
At the beginning of the trial proceedings on Friday, Johnson also expressed “grave concern” about one member of the public he believed was “actively participating in the trial” by establishing “relationships” with the jurors but also sitting with family members of the victims.
Segerstrom did not remove anyone from the courtroom, but reminded the jurors that many of the people in attendance were there “for a variety of reasons.” Segerstrom admonished the crowd and reminded them that no one should converse with the jurors for any reason.
The trial will resume on Wednesday, July 18 at 8:30 a.m. in the Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.