Laura Cleaves, a veteran investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office was killed late Thursday night after a head-on collision at the top of San Marcos Road with a allegedly drunk driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz. California Highway Patrol reports indicate that the alleged drunk driver, Ashley Johnigan, also hit another vehicle after crashing into Cleaves. In that instance, both Johnigan and the other driver escaped with relatively minor injuries. Johnigan will be arraigned early this week. The State Attorney’s General’s office will handle the prosecution.
Among the DA’s office, Cleaves was regarded a dogged investigator, a good friend, and a genuinely nice person. “She didn’t have an ounce of slacker in her,” commented her boss Dave Saunders. “She pursued everything full tilt.” Saunders credited Cleaves – along with deputy District Attorney Patrick McKinley – with pursuing the recent adoption fraud indictment against Mesa resident Orson Mozes even though federal law enforcement agencies dismissed it as a local matter and local law enforcement authorities saw it as a civil problem, rather than a criminal one. As of this writing, Mozes remains wanted by authorities. Cleaves-an avid equestrian-is also credited with developing the case against Santa Ynez rancher Slick Gardner, who was found guilty of wholesale animal cruelty in treatment of his horses.
It was also Cleaves who did much of the leg work that led to the indictment and conviction a year ago of abusive foster mom and childcare provider Sylvia Vasquez. Cleaves compiled the evidence showing how Vasquez kept several of her adoptive foster kids behind bars and defecating into buckets while running a child care facility out of her home popular with many politically prominent Santa Barbarans. Vasquez had argued that she had adopted kids so emotionally troubled by their own abusive pasts that such drastic measures were needed to keep her other foster children safe. In response, Cleaves demonstrated that Vasquez had psychologically disturbing history in which she “kidnapped” two kids in Mexico. Cleaves also discovered that state adoption agency officials were aware of these allegations, but that they allowed Vasquez to adopt her foster kids anyway.
As tough and gung-ho as any law enforcement officer, in person Cleaves was anything but the taciturn clamp-jawed stereotype that fits so many cops. If anything, she was friendly, outgoing, and helpful – even with reporters – though some defense attorneys expressed concern she became too emotionally wrapped up in her work.
Cleaves, 53, had worked for the district attorneys office since 1984. Before that, she’d served as a cop for the Santa Barbara Police Department as well as in the cities of Arcata and Los Angeles. In all, her law enforcement career spanned 32 years. As an investigator she specialized in complex theft cases as well as criminal transgressions by public officials. It was Cleaves, for example, who handled the investigation resulting in grand theft charges brought against the director of the Goleta Cemetery. More recently, she also lead the investigation against the director of Oak Hall cemetery, where she will be buried, on the same charge.
In a profession notably hostile to the domestic stability of its practitioners, Cleaves was said to be a happy anomaly. A specialist in child abduction cases and a lecturer on the legal nuances of abduction law for the Attorney General’s office, Cleaves was described as a doting mother of two grown children. She and her husband Steve Cleaves, an intelligence officer with the Sheriffs Department, were also in charge of the Santa Ynez equine unit. Every year at Christmas, the Cleaves pulled out all the stops in terms of Yule-themed decorations and open houses. “She was a real hard charger,” Saunders recalled. “But then she’d come into the office with a plate full of brownies and stories about what her kids did over the weekend.”
Saunders said Cleaves’s death has hit the department hard. Personally, he said, she was very well liked. “And organizationally, it’s going to be a nightmare. Before if we found ourselves with some really messy case on our hands, we could just say, ‘Give it to Laura,'” he said. “And we knew she wouldn’t just take care of it; she’d do a great job.”
The Deputy District Attorneys Association has created the Laura Cleaves Memorial Fund. Those wishing to send flowers are instead encouraged to make donations at any branch of Santa Barbara Bank and Trust. The account number is 0101705895.