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Laura Cleaves

Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office

Laura Cleaves


UPDATED: Highway 154 Head-On Kills DA Investigator

Laura Cleaves Pronounced Dead at the Scene


Laura Cleaves, a supervising investigator for the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office, was killed in a collision on Highway 154 at approximately 11:30 on Thursday night, May 1. Ashley Johnigan, 22, of Santa Barbara, driving eastward, allegedly crossed the double-yellow center line and hit Cleaves’ car head on. Johnigan was booked on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

The CHP had received a call moments earlier reporting a possibly intoxicated female driver of a black Mercedes Benz heading toward the 154, a curving foothill highway, from Sagunto Road in Santa Ynez. A pair of Buellton CHP patrol officers reportedly found a car and driver of that description stopped, partially in the eastbound lane of 154. They parked behind it, but the driver sped off as they approached. She allegedly struck the Dodge Stratus driven by Cleaves head-on. Johnigan then continued eastward and collided with a Ford Escape, whose driver sustained minor injuries, as did Johnigan.

Laura Cleaves was pronounced dead at the scene. She was a recognized expert in complex white collar crime cases as well as child abduction investigations, according to Dave Saunders, who is chief of investigating for the DA’s office. She was lead investigator in the recently highly publicized case of fugitive Orson Moses, wanted on suspicion of defrauding dozens of people in Santa Barbara and elsewhere seeking to adopt children. Laura Cleaves was also the wife of Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Cleaves. The collision will be investigated by the Coastal Division CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, and the California State Attorney General’s Office will handle the prosecution.

In leiu of flowers, which have been arriving at the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office as well as her home, Cleaves’s family and friends would prefer that people make donations in her memory to the Laura Cleaves Memorial Fund at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, account number is 0101705895.

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