System Failure Drunk behind the wheel without a license, but not ‘at fault’

By Mary Duan and Joe Livernois

Sonia Cano sat in the living room of her South Salinas home and waited.

She knew she was in big trouble. Over the phone, she told the cops as much.

She had spent the day out with friends, hitting various spots around town and enjoying a chilly December Sunday off. The group started out at 10:30 a.m. at Elli’s Great American Restaurant on South Main, where Cano had three mimosas. Then they made a quick stop at Clay Street Liquor for gum, water and snacks — one of her friends also bought a bottle of tequila there. They headed to Los Altos Restaurant on Kern Street to meet more friends before landing at Ikebana Restaurant on North Main, where Cano had soup, some fish and at least one beer. The sake also flowed.

She didn’t keep great track of how much she drank. One friend would later describe her as relaxed, but not altered. Another, though, described her in a text message to another friend thusly: “Dude, she’s drunk.”

Cano and a friend left Ikebana at 6:37pm, Cano behind the wheel of her 2004 Honda, her friend in the passenger’s seat and they headed south on North Main Street.

At that point, Alan Ellis’ fate was sealed.

The homeless man who had struggled for decades with mental illness and addiction had less than a half hour left to live.

Salinas is a city where pedestrian deaths run three times the national average, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety. Last year’s seven victims include 41-year-old Bernardina Leon, a mother who was struck while crossing the street with her 6-year-old daughter at North Main and Lamar streets. In that incident, the driver fled and was captured two days later—his case is pending. Leon lingered in the hospital for several days before dying.

And on the night of Dec. 10, Alan Ellis was only one of the pedestrian deaths that occurred. The other, 27-year-old Jay Bradley, was pushing a shopping cart across East Laurel Drive about 5:30 p.m. when he was struck. He suffered severe head trauma and was pronounced dead shortly after at Natividad Medical Center.

In a city noted for its high number of pedestrian fatalities, what stands out most about Ellis’ is this: Cano was an officer of the court, a veteran employee of the Monterey County Probation Department, where she started as a clerical assistant and worked her way up. She knew she was in big trouble (as she put it to police), because after striking Ellis so hard other drivers report he flew through the air, she left the scene of the accident. And the most mind-bending bit: Although she was legally drunk at the time, the Monterey County District Attorney’s office didn’t charge Cano with felony DUI. They say they couldn’t prove she was responsible for Ellis’ death because he walked out into traffic.

The details of how Cano spent that day, and what she did after her car struck Ellis, are laid out in a probation report written by the Santa Cruz County Probation Department because Cano’s own department had a conflict of interest in the case.

After the accident, in which Ellis suffered severe blunt force trauma to his head and the right side of his body, as well as two broken legs, Cano pulled over at the Valero station at North Main and Laurel streets. She spent 10 minutes there, with her passenger in tow; another friend who was in a vehicle behind hers arrived, and a third friend showed up as well. She told one friend she was worried about her life and career. The friends urged her to go back to the accident scene, the report states. Instead, she got into her vehicle alone and drove home. Her friends followed.

Three hours after the accident, at 10:02 p.m., she called Salinas Police Officer David Crabill Jr., who was off-duty at the time, on his cell phone. She told him what happened, and asked if his father, SPD Cmdr. David Crabill Sr., was on duty.

He was, and son called father to tell him Cano had called him to report the accident. At 10:12, Crabill Sr. called her. The call was recorded, and Cano told him she was “in big trouble.”

From the probation report account of that conversation: She said she should not be driving because her license was expired. She said the pedestrian “jumped in front of the car” and she said she had been drinking. Crabill Sr. advised her to call a bail bondsman, and said he was sending two officers to her home on Hawthorne Street to arrest her and bring her to the station.

While Cano invoked her Miranda rights and declined to answer questions, she agreed to provide a blood sample. “The officer noted that at the time of Ms. Cano’s arrest, she had symptoms of intoxication and an odor of alcoholic beverage was emitting from her breath in the back seat.”

Four hours after the accident, Cano’s blood was drawn at Natividad and her blood alcohol level was measured at nearly twice the legal limit, pegged at .15-percent. She was booked into Monterey County Jail.

An empty tequila bottle was found in the car’s trunk, and a plastic bottle half full of gold-colored liquid was found between the front seats.

Cano was drunk, she hit a pedestrian and she fled the scene. Those facts are undisputed. What has been disputed, though, is why prosecutors opted to charge Cano the way they did. The Ellis family — his parents, Larry and Edie, a cousin, Alan’s sister and brother-in-law — aren’t happy with the outcome. In a letter to the court, cousin April Ellis writes Cano should have been charged with murder. Not manslaughter, not involuntary manslaughter, but murder.

“Could Alan have survived with medical intervention? I don’t know,” she writes. “But I do know that even the most apathetic person could at least call 911.”

On Jan. 9, Cano was charged with a felony count of hit and run with death and injury, a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of alcohol and a misdemeanor count of being an unlicensed driver.

As to that last count, which was dropped at sentencing, defense attorney Brian Worthington told the probation department that Cano had been investigated seven to eight years ago on suspicion of a hit and run involving property only — meaning that nobody was injured. She cooperated, reported the phone call from police to her superiors at work and was never cited. But she also didn’t want it to come up when renewing her license, the probation report states, quoting Worthington.

According to Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon, a felony count of driving under the influence would require them to prove that Cano was at fault for the death, and they couldn’t prove it in this case. The misdemeanor DUI count doesn’t require that level of proof.

As the accident is described in the probation report, one witness says he was driving in the middle lane of North Main Street and was startled when he saw a pedestrian in the middle of the roadway, stepping off of the raised concrete median. He made an erratic turn to avoid hitting Ellis, but told his daughter, “That man is going to get hit.” And seconds later, in his rearview mirror, he saw Ellis fly through the air.

“A reasonable person, a reasonable sober person, could likely have collided with the victim if they were in Miss Cano’s position,” Brannon says. “This guy came out from behind a car that had slowed down in the fast lane that came to a quick stop, and at that very instant he walked out from behind the car that had stopped.

“It was instantaneous,” he adds. “It doesn’t appear that an ordinary reasonable person would have time to react. He just walked into traffic.”

What made Cano “prison eligible,” he says, is that she left the scene of the accident.

“If you’re driving under the influence and cause a person’s death, that’s a felony,” Brannon says. “In this case, there was no way to prove it.”

According to the prosecutor’s sentencing memorandum, the Salinas Police Department concluded Ellis was at fault for the collision.

Cano pleaded no contest to the hit and run and DUI, and she pleaded with the understanding that she would be sentenced to a term of felony probation which could include a year in county jail.

Letters written on her behalf came from friends, colleagues and former colleagues. They describe Cano’s behavior in the hours leading up to the accident, and what she did after the accident, as completely out of character for her. They speak to her good works as a community volunteer and as a role model for young women.

In one letter, veteran probation officer Mike McNew, now a resident of San Diego, asks Monterey County Superior Court Judge Andrew Liu to fashion a sentence that would allow Cano to serve time on house arrest in the Supervised Home Confinement program.

“This tragedy is heartbreakingly ironic given Sonia’s history as someone who deeply cares about crime victims,” McNew writes. “I still do quite a bit of reading about our criminal justice system, particularly about what constitutes justice. I recently came across the following quote, and it seemed so relevant to this case:

“‘We want our acts to be judged in the context of motivation and personal history, and a concept of character that involves more than our worst offenses,’” — from the story “Federal Offenses” by Wendy Kaminer, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1994.

According to a press release from the District Attorney’s office, Liu noted the case couldn’t have been charged differently by the DA’s office because the police department investigation concluded Cano wasn’t at fault for the accident.

She could have walked free on probation. But Liu instead ordered Cano remanded.

She was taken into custody to serve the year-long jail sentence.

Alan Ellis in his younger days. | Provided photo

Edie Ellis thought closure would come when she watched Cano being handcuffed and led away. Her son’s death happened less than four months ago and the emotional wounds are still raw for her and her husband, Larry. They haven’t done a memorial service yet; the ashes are still in the house. They still don’t want to read the coroner’s report. They break down at odd moments, at the reminders and the coincidences that seem to surround them these days.

Like the other day, Larry opened a closet door in their Seaside home and an old baseball cap fell out of the closet. It was one of Alan’s old hats, the cap he wore when he played for the 20-30’s baseball team. Larry coached the team for a dozen years and Alan, his son, was one of his pitchers. Baseball had been the father-son bond, more than three decades ago. Larry and Edie have been opening and closing that closet door for years. They had no idea the cap was up there. Then, all of a sudden, several weeks after Alan died, it plopped to the ground at Larry’s feet.

Alan Ellis was 52 when he crossed that street and was struck by Cano’s car. His family believes that justice was not served, not only for Cano, but also for their son.

Alan’s issues led the Ellis family along a torturous odyssey for decades. Alcoholism. Mental-health disorders. Homelessness. Jail. Edie and Larry tried everything. They sought help everywhere, they went the tough-love route, they did too much, they did too little. They got Alan into treatment centers that didn’t take.

In all, they spent more than 30 years trying to navigate what Larry Ellis calls a “catch and release merry-go-round” system of justice for people like his son.

“He was a mental stew,” Larry Ellis says. He estimates that the county spent at least a half-million dollars over the years to keep his son in jail for dozens of piddling offenses — misdemeanors and a handful of nonviolent felonies — off and on for dozens of years. At one point, Ellis tried to tell a judge at one of Alan’s sentencings that his boy needed mental-health treatment, and not more time in county. He had his speech written out.

“Treating mental illness as a crime, instead of a health problem, will continue to cost the county even more money,” Ellis had written. The judge didn’t let him get that far. “He stopped me after the first sentence,” he says. “I wish I could have finished. It might have made a difference. It might have saved his life.”

The Ellises are unhappy with the sentence for a number of reasons. Cano was drunk. It was a hit and run. She was a county employee — an officer of the court, no less — who was driving without a license. And she only got a year after pleading no contest to felony hit-and-run causing death and injury and misdemeanor DUI. Prosecutors did not file felony DUI because the police and prosecutors determined that Alan Ellis was at fault. Jaywalking on a dark street with lots of traffic. Cano is now serving her sentence in the San Benito County Jail. She is doing her time there, rather than in Monterey County Jail, to protect her against inmates who might know her as a probation officer.

Edie Ellis figures the lenient charge is a case of “the county taking care of its own.” The hit-and-run alone warranted more serious charges, she believes. She testified at the sentencing, delivering a witness statement. “Ms. Cano drove off knowing she had hit him and did not have the decency to stop and say she was sorry, or just be with him as he lay dying,” she told Liu.

The light sentence made Edie Ellis feel that Cano was actually the victim. Still, she felt a sense of gratitude while watching Cano get led away in cuffs.

Then, the next day, she read an account of the sentencing hearing in the local newspaper. She believes the article made it sound like Cano was indeed the victim. It mentions that he was jaywalking, that he had a blood-alcohol level. It’s all true, but it didn’t mention that she had also been drinking, that she left the scene of an accident. Because she pleaded out, there was no trial and so, with no trial, the facts of the case were never made public.

“I’m pissed at the system, pissed at the county, pissed at the city,” she says. “Not just for Alan but for everyone who’s lost a child to the system.”

A couple of days after the sentencing, she told a friend on social media that she hopes Cano can get the sort of help for her issues that her son never got. Asked to elaborate, Edie Ellis says she would indeed like to see Cano get help, but only “so she can tell the Ellis family she is sorry for what happened.”

“During the sentencing, she wouldn’t turn around, she wouldn’t look at us, she wouldn’t apologize.”

Every parent who’s been through the agony of a son or daughter lost to mental-health issues or addiction is familiar with the dread of the anticipated phone call.

It’s the call no one ever hopes to get, but the call they always expect.

The phone is not a friend; it rarely brings good news. The calls from jail. The calls of extreme distress. The calls pleading for help, pleading for money, pleading to be allowed back in the house. And always there’s the dread sense that eventually the caller will not be a desperate son or daughter, but will be the county coroner.

Larry Ellis last heard from his son on Dec. 2, in a series of calls from Monterey County Jail. There was some confusion about when Alan would be be released, but Larry had the impression that Alan was going to be transferred to a mental-health facility. Finally. It sounded hopeful.

But the Ellises didn’t hear back from their son. So Larry Ellis called the jail on the morning Dec. 10 to find out where he had been moved. He was told his son had been released from custody on Dec. 2.

A couple of hours later, Larry Ellis answered the phone. It was The Call.

Two weeks later, out of the blue, a couple of county employees showed up at the Ellis house. They identified themselves as social workers, there to see what they might be able to do to help Alan. Larry Ellis isn’t sure exactly who they were or what agency they represented. He was too angry to understand anything at that point, other than the county showed up after Alan could use its help. “I told them that they were too late,” Larry says. “I told them Alan was dead. They apologized. I know it’s not their fault. The system is broken.”

Edie Ellis is a hairdresser with a clientele that become her friends. She didn’t often talk about Alan’s issues, because how does one even broach that subject?

When it did come up, it was usually because the person she talked to was living the same nightmare. And Edie started to figure out that her son’s mental-health issues were not unique. “A lot of people are dealing with this,” she says. “It’s amazing.” And virtually all of them feel powerless and frustrated by their inability to penetrate a system that seems impervious to their desperation.

Edie has been an active volunteer with a group called the Community Partnership for Youth. It’s something she’s been doing for decades.

Community Partnership for Youth is a prevention program that seeks to redirect at-risk youth from gangs, drugs and violence. Its mission is to provide youth with a “safe, structured environment that encourages healthy boundaries, positive self-esteem and the ability to make good choices for a full and successful life.”

The agency was created by Monterey Peninsula residents back in 1991, after a promising student-athlete at Seaside High School, Ramon Avila, was shot and killed during an alleged drug deal. The program offers after-school tutor programs, a five-week summer program, a middle-school leadership program and a visual and performing arts academy, among other things.

“So many children are going through rough times in their lives,” Edie Ellis says. “The majority of the staff have grown up in CPY and have caring compassionate hearts to help every student be successful. We are a family.”

Edie is a member of the agency board. She has established a fund in memory of her son, with proceeds to benefit Community Partnership.

“After Alan got killed I need to be more involved than ever,” she says.

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