On full display in Judge James Rigali’s emotionally-charged Santa Maria courtroom Thursday morning, November 19, were two families that loved and cared for their members, and two families whose lives had forever been changed on May 1, 2008, when two cars struck each other.
On one side was the family of Laura Cleaves-a 53-year-old killed when her car was hit head-on, on Highway 154. “Laura was truly a wonderful person,” said her husband Stephen, a sergeant with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department until his recent retirement. His wife, mother of their two grown children, worked as a supervising investigator with the District Attorney’s office. “She was bigger than life,” he said. “She was not only my wife, she was my best friend.”
The other family was that of Ashley Johnigan, a now-24-year-old who was driving intoxicated with a 0.24 blood-alcohol level when she slammed her car into Cleaves’s that day. In September, a Santa Maria jury found Johnigan guilty of second degree murder, vehicular manslaughter, and two misdemeanor drunken-driving counts. “We appreciate and mourn and grieve with the Cleaves family,” said Johnigan’s older sister Monyka. From the first day of hearing about who Cleaves was, she said, “We all knew this was someone we could know and be friends with.”
But fate intertwined these two families together under different circumstances, and on Thursday the two groups convened for one last go-round. Johnigan’s sentencing hearing was a chance for Cleaves’s friends and family to share with the judge the impact of losing their wife, mother, friend, colleague and teacher. “Laura was the woman I expected to grow old with,” said Senior Deputy DA Aimee Libeu, who described Cleaves as her best friend. For Johnigan’s family, it was one last chance to defend their sister, daughter, parishioner, and friend before the judge handed down the sentence. “My sister has good to do in this world on behalf of Laura Cleaves,” Monyka Johnigan said.
The testimony from each side clearly took its toll on Judge Rigali, who was obviously torn about the decision he had to make, and said as much after hearing the emotional pleas from both sides-and of Johnigan’s remorse from the defendant herself. Rigali had to choose between sentencing Johnigan to either one year in county jail, or 15-years-to-life in prison. These were not ideal options, he said, but he had no say in the charges filed by the prosecution or the strategies used by the defense. “I’m not satisfied with the choices I have,” said Rigali, who had earlier denied Johnigan’s motion for a retrial as well as a motion to reduce the murder charge. Johnigan’s attorney, Robert Sanger, had argued that if ever a case called for such a decision to be made, this is one, because of a disproportion between the crime and the possible sentence of life in prison.
In the end, Rigali chose the 15-years-to-life in prison, meaning Johnigan, 22 when the collision occurred, will be spending at least the next 12 years in prison-she will first be eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of the 15 years. Johnigan will also be expected to pay $1.05 million in lost retirement restitution to the Cleaves family.
Johnigan had been at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez the night of the collision, and was encouraged by others in the bar to get a ride home and not drive herself, according to testimony. But she chose to drive that night, the prosecution argued, and knew what the dangers of drunk driving were.
Johnigan’s attorney Robert Sanger argued that she left the bar because she was made to feel uncomfortable by others in the bar, and drove away intending to find a spot to stop and sober up for the night.
She did indeed stop along Highway 154. The defense said she didn’t recognize a CHP vehicle that pulled up behind her because the car only had its white lights on. She began driving again and not long after-at approximately 11:30 p.m.-crossed over the double yellow line and crashed into Cleaves’s oncoming vehicle. Cleaves, recognized as an expert in child abduction and complex white collar crime cases, died at the scene.
Immediately following her death, Cleaves-who had been at the DA’s office since 1984-was remembered fondly as a funny and insightful woman who cared about her community and family, who rode horses and taught children to ride as well. The Santa Barbara law enforcement community was hit hard by her death, as she could always be counted on for the tough cases.
Johnigan herself addressed the court Thursday, but directed her comments almost entirely to Stephen Cleaves. “I don’t really know if sorry is the word to use in this case,” Johnigan said, standing and turning to address Cleaves, tears running down her face, dressed in blue jail-issued scrubs. “I just want you guys to know-everyone in this court, especially her husband-that I am deeply sorry for taking your wife from you.
“If ever I could have the honor of speaking with you eye to eye I would be so willing,” she told Cleaves as almost everyone in the courtroom began crying. “I hope that one day you can breathe without so much pain.”
Outside the courtroom, Deputy Attorney General Michael Keller, whose office handled the prosecution because of the Santa Barbara County DA’s obvious conflict, didn’t comment, citing a gag order, while Sanger would only say that he plans to file a notice of appeal.
While Stephen Cleaves gathered with supporters and wiped tears from his eyes, Johnigan’s mother came up to him. Only a few words were exchanged, but their mutual sorrow-for different loved ones-was evident as they embraced.