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Driver in Fatal 154 Crash Was a Ticking Time Bomb

John Roderick Dungan Was Recently Arrested on Gun and Stalking Charges and Had Been Involuntarily Committed to Psychiatric Hospital

The 28-year-old man driving a Camaro westbound crossed into the oncoming lane. | Credit: Mike Eliason/SBCo Fire
John Roderick Dungan

On Friday, October 25, at approximately 4:45 p.m., Santa Barbara authorities were on their way to conduct a welfare check at the home of John Roderick Dungan. They had received information, just as they had during a check of Dungan earlier this year, that he was suicidal and homicidal.

As police approached his Foothill neighborhood home, they got the call. Dungan, 28, had just been involved in a fatal collision on Highway 154. He was driving his Chevy Camaro westbound near Cold Spring Bridge when, “for unknown reasons,” he crossed the double-yellow line and slammed head-on into a Chevy Volt driven by Solvang resident Vanessa Bley, 34. Bley and the two children in her backseat were killed. Dungan was airlifted to Cottage Hospital with life-threatening injuries.

The identities of the children are being determined by DNA samples sent to the Sacramento, officials said. Bley, a singer and songwriter, was married with two young kids. The California Highway Patrol asked that witnesses to the crash contact their office at (805) 967-1234. Authorities are now determining whether to investigate the incident as a homicide. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” said CHP spokesperson Officer Jonathan Gutierrez. As of Monday afternoon, Dungan remained in critical condition.

The previous welfare check on Dungan occurred on February 23 of this year. It was prompted by him texting everyone on his cell phone contact list a long and ominous note that suggested he wanted to hurt himself and others. “I am too sensitive for this reality with a cursed blessing/blessed curse that makes life on this planet not worth living,” a portion of the message reads. “Enough is enough. If none can/will help me solve this problem or kill me, then I will try as hard as I can to solve it myself.”

Photo: CourtesyVanessa Bley

When he was contacted by authorities ― specifically by a new experimental unit called the Crisis Intervention Team that combines law enforcement officers with mental health workers ― Dungan made “multiple references to Isla Vista mass murder Elliot Rodger,” according to their notes on the encounter. Police also discovered a weapons cache at the Morada Lane house, where he lives with his parents.

Police found 16 guns, including handguns, shotguns, and rifles ― one of which was buried in the backyard ― 20,000 rounds of ammunition, a gas mask, and high-capacity magazines. The guns were legally registered, though some had been illegally altered to make them fully automatic. During a search of Dungan’s Camaro, police discovered he had sewn armor plating into the driver’s seat and headrest. Inside the house was a safe containing more than $40,000 in cash belonging to Dungan, who said he was a professional poker player.

Determining he was a danger to himself and others, authorities placed Dungan on an involuntary psychiatric hold and confiscated his weapons. They also seized guns belonging to his father. Dungan was transferred to Las Encinas Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Pasadena, where he was evaluated by doctors. According to their report, Dungan arrived agitated and disheveled, but he denied wanting to harm himself or anyone else. “I’m not suicidal,” he told them. “I don’t wanna hurt anybody. I just wanna go home.”

Doctors diagnosed Dungan with major depressive disorder with severe psychotic symptoms. They prescribed him 10 mg of Lexapro a day and he “became calm and cooperative,” the report states. They also recommend he be held and treated for three to seven days, but he was released after just two.

In his discharge papers, filed in public court records, Dungan’s “judgement” was described as “poor, because he does not accept consequences for his actions.” His “insight” was also listed as “poor, because he does not recognize having a psychiatric disorder.” Under the category of “liabilities,” doctors wrote: “He is impulsive and has minimal support system.” Dungan had complained that he had no friends and that he was unable to talk to his parents about his problems.

Nevertheless, the psychiatrists at Las Encinas Hospital listed Dungan’s prognosis as “good.” They said he promised to follow up with his outpatient doctor within a week of his release, that “he is motivated to get better,” and “he has a place to live.” They noted he had a family history of alcoholism and mental illness.

Soon after he was released on February 25, Dungan was charged with multiple gun offenses, including possessing high-capacity magazines and concealing a firearm in his car. His guns were not returned to him; neither were his father’s. Dungan was also charged with felony stalking. At the time, according to court records, Dungan was harassing an ex-girlfriend. The two had dated for a month before the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, broke it off. She told police Dungan had scared her and that he “was not in touch with reality.”

Over her repeated insistence that he leave her alone, Dungan continued texting the woman and sending her messages through Facebook. A detective described their content as “vulgar and threatening.” He’d shown up at her house on four separate occasions, including on Christmas and on her birthday, and aggressively confronted her new boyfriend. She took out a restraining order against Dungan that also ordered him to stay away from her friends and family.

Another ex-girlfriend of Dungan’s, who also dated him only briefly, told police she was “terrified” of him. She compared him to Elliot Rodger and said she’d worried he was capable of violence. According to court records, she’d filed an earlier report with police.

Dungan was booked March 1 in County Jail on the gun and stalking charges. He was released March 20 and placed on GPS monitoring. He was also ordered to attend outpatient treatment. His next court date was supposed to be November 1.

Exactly what prompted the October 25 welfare check remains unclear, only that authorities were worried about Dungan’s safety and the safety of others. Dungan’s defense attorney, William Makler, did not return requests for comment. Questions posed to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Raquel Zick were not answered as of deadline.

This story has been updated with information on Dungan’s incarceration and release. It will continue to be updated as facts become available.

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