Suspicious King City traffic death was never truly investigated Former Monterey County sheriff’s detective says it was a cover-up

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By Royal Calkins

KING CITY – In dark clothes, Aracely Zavala was walking in the middle of a dark frontage road for reasons that made little sense. From the fresh scuffs later found on the soles of her boots, it seems she was facing away from town when the fast-moving SUV slammed into her from behind.

The impact threw the 120-pound woman 175 feet down Mesa Verde Road. It broke most of her bones. The California Highway Patrol estimated the Chevy Tahoe was going about 60 mph.

Zavala, 42, presumably died right away that night in January 2015. Then her terrible death went essentially uninvestigated for a year or more and later received sporadic but superficial attention from law enforcement. Officially, it was declared an accident weeks afterward. 

Several months of reporting by Voices of Monterey Bay determined, however, that the primary agency responsible for the investigation, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, never seriously explored tips from friends and relatives of Zavala who said she had been in a sexual relationship with the SUV driver, King City mortician Robert Eddington, and that she was afraid of him.

The tips were provided to the CHP soon after her death, but there is no record showing that they were shared with sheriff’s homicide detectives for more than a year, resulting in a truncated inquiry.

In another highly unusual development, the reports eventually written by those detectives have disappeared from the Sheriff’s Office files. Paper copies and digital.

In her final years, in the grip of drugs, Zavala was a part-time sex worker. Mainly from what she had told them, her family and six of her closest friends told Voices that they believed she had been pressured to perform various sex acts at the Eddington Funeral Chapel in King City and that she had tried to bargain for more money. They believe or at least suspect that’s what led to her death.

Eddington has denied knowing Zavala and denied trying to kill her.

An on-again, off-again boyfriend says Zavala had talked about blackmailing Eddington and that she was especially scared in the weeks before she was killed. That man, Paul Range, was never questioned by the authorities and neither were some of Eddington’s closest associates. 

The early days after a possible crime are prime time for investigation. This case apparently wasn’t assigned to homicide detective Marty Opseth for more than a year, shortly before his scheduled retirement. Another detective, Dan Robison, was then assigned to take over but was quickly pulled off the case for more pressing work.

In the view of Robison, “It was a cover-up. They didn’t want it solved.” 

Who didn’t? 

“Bernal,” he said.

He was referring to King City-area resident Steve Bernal, who was sworn in as Monterey County sheriff four weeks before Zavala was killed. Bernal left office eight years later, after a turbulent tenure documented by a series of  Voices articles about him and his administration.

Before being elected sheriff, Bernal had worked 11 years as a sheriff’s deputy in the King City substation. He most likely was at least acquainted with Eddington. Both men were wired into the business, law enforcement and political circles of King City, population 14,000 or so. Both were involved in youth baseball and softball in the little city ‑— Eddington officiated and Bernal’s children played. Bernal had several friends and relatives who hired Eddington to handle funeral arrangements for their loved ones. 

“It’s a small town,” said an area resident who knows both men well. “They have to know each other.”

Eddington and some of his closest business associates were the very first contributors to Bernal’s initial sheriff’s campaign in 2014. Eddington has done business with several of Bernal’s most generous campaign contributors. One of them, prominent grower Jerry Rava Jr., a cousin of Bernal, owned the building where the funeral home was located at the time of Zavala’s death.

Eddington also has been a friend and associate of Bernal’s campaign treasurer, King City accountant Roger Borzini. At the time of Zavala’s death, Eddington and Borzini served together on the city cemetery board and the board of trustees for Mee Memorial Hospital in King City. 

Borzini said in a February phone interview that he had not been questioned by detectives and didn’t know anyone who had. He said he didn’t know there had been an investigation.

“I thought it was just an accident out there on the highway,” he said.

Adding to the list of questions about the death, someone in the weeks afterward made several Facebook posts claiming that much of Aracely’s wardrobe had come from the funeral home. The posts said the clothes and jewelry were items that relatives of deceased women had taken to the mortuary to be worn for burial. 

Several pictures of clothes were included in the social media posts that urged law enforcement to arrest Eddington. Zavala’s relatives and some of her closest friends say they have no idea who posted the information, no longer online. Robison said he was not aware of the posts while he was on the case.

Eddington reportedly told a sheriff’s investigator in early 2016 that he didn’t know Zavala and certainly didn’t mean to kill her. In a brief conversation with this reporter early this year, Eddington said the investigation had been an “ordeal.” He then agreed to an interview but his wife, Geneva, wouldn’t allow it.  Eddington didn’t respond to an emailed list of questions last week.

Galen Bohner was Bernal’s original undersheriff, his second in command. His term started the month Zavala was killed and lasted until March 2016, around the time detective Opseth was put on the case. Bohner confirmed in a recent interview that while Zavala’s death received some early attention from a coroner’s detective, there was no official homicide investigation by the Sheriff’s Office during his 15-month tenure there.

Former detective Robison said that if the situation had been reversed, if Eddington was the victim and Zavala the driver, it would have been handled much differently.

“I’ve never heard a potential homicide case receive less attention,” Robison said. He added that Bernal never told him directly to look the other way, “but word got around.” 

Bernal has not returned several phone messages to his and his wife’s phones. He also has not responded to messages to three of his email accounts. Over the past three years, he has failed to respond to repeated messages from Voices on various subjects.

Voices asked Monterey public relations practitioner David Armanasco, Bernal’s spokesman during both of his campaigns for sheriff, to pass a message to the former sheriff or verify that he had received the earlier messages. He declined, saying, “I don’t think he’ll talk to you.”

The case could be reopened at any time. There’s no statute of limitations for homicide. But any meaningful inquiry would be hampered by the passage of time, the disappearance of the reports filed by the detectives, and the disappearance of Zavala’s cell phone, which might have contained evidence of contact between her and Eddington.

Bernal’s successor as sheriff, Tina Nieto, confirmed that the reports have gone missing.

“The Sheriff’s Office at this time has been unable to locate any Monterey County Sheriff’s Office investigative reports about Zavala’s death, other than the coroner’s report,” she said in February.

The way Zavala’s family and friends see it, the handling of her death illustrates a clash of cultures in a place where the haves make the rules and the have-nots try to get along.

Zavala’s closest friends include several King City-area residents with criminal records and who openly acknowledge past or present drug problems. Several say Zavala had told them about her relationship with Eddington. Each of them says they were never questioned by detectives. To a person, they’re convinced her death didn’t receive the attention it deserved because of who she was and who the driver was. 

Much of the King City/South Monterey County ruling class is made up of farming families that also own rights to the oil pumped nearby by Chevron and other producers. Bernal got into office in large part because of their financial help. When he first ran for sheriff in 2014 and ran again in 2018, the Monterey County media made much of his financial support from his brother’s mother-in-law, Margart Duflock, who is involved in both oil and ag. But the press corps didn’t seem to notice that he also received sizable contributions from several other wealthy South County people to whom he is related. The Orradres. The Ravas. The Rosenbergs.

In his first campaign, Bernal had such strong King City and Republican Party help that he pulled off a great upset and ousted the incumbent sheriff, Scott Miller. Bernal prevailed even though he had never advanced past the rank of deputy, bottom of the departmental pecking order. He had been passed over for promotion to detective and had received no management training.

Like Bernal, Zavala grew up in this truck stop, restroom, get-a-burger place for people traveling Highway 101 between L.A. and the Bay Area. It’s the commercial and government center of southern Monterey County, better known as South County. In many ways, though, it is more closely connected to the cities of Templeton and Paso Robles, across the San Luis Obispo County line to the south. Eddington commutes from his home in Paso Robles. That’s where he says he was headed when he ran over Zavala.

‘Where everybody works like hell’

Fifty years ago, King City was mostly white. Now it’s mostly Brown. Most of the small family farms have given way to giant family farms and investor-owned spreads. Decades ago, the big earner was pink beans, a cousin of pintos. Lettuce and other row crops produce much more cash these days.

To the east and west, the hills that line the Salinas Valley are dotted with cows and the houses of the King City merchant class. Many established  families moved up and out of town when the gangs got too active. Drive up the canyons for a view of the valley and you’ll see the gated houses getting larger and longer. To the west, small private airstrips overlook the lakes on the border of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. When she was younger, Zavala occasionally pole-danced at parties not far from the marinas.

Of the Monterey County towns linked by Highway 101 — King City, Soledad, Greenfield, Gonzales — King City has had the most gang activity in recent decades. Some of that was byproduct of the state prison compounds up the road in Soledad. Another likely factor is Highway 101, an important drug route that connects Mexico to most major markets of the West Coast. Years ago, Zavala’s ex-husband allegedly made good use of it. 

The town was described in a song by the San Francisco cowpunk band Red Meat.

King city is a town east of the Santa Lucia Hills
Where everybody works like hell just
Trying to pay their bills
My mom and dad broke their backs
Just trying to put some money in the kitty
But I wanted out, was not about
To waste my life in King City

The town’s biggest brush with notoriety came in 2014, the year before Zavala’s death, when it was enmeshed in a Police Department scandal. A half dozen officers were convicted of helping a towing service illegally haul away and sell numerous cars. Most of the victims were undocumented families without the means to recover their vehicles. Although Zavala was a U.S. citizen, she also lost her car to the scammers.

Also that year, the FBI calculated that King City had the highest per capita murder rate in California. High-ranking members of the Sheriff’s Office said Bernal was obsessed with helping King City combat the violence, to the detriment of the rest of the county. 

Since then, the crime rate has generally dropped — but in early March of this year, the city was shaken by the deaths of four residents gunned down by masked intruders at a birthday party. 

Zavala lived most of her life in a relatively low tier of King City society. Her parents, Basilio and Zeferina, had immigrated from near Durango, Mexico, where their families farmed and made mezcal. Basilio had to work multiple jobs to support their six children. Her dad worked in the fields and later handled trucking-related tasks for Rava Ranches, the largest employer in the area.

Aracely’s mother stayed home in a neighborhood of neat, thousand-square-foot homes on the town’s south side. She never learned English. 

As a child, family and friends say, Zavala was vibrant and mischievous. In elementary and middle school she played with more upscale classmates. By high school, though, she and other Latinos sometimes felt like onlookers being groomed for work in the kitchens and packing houses.

While a couple of Zavala’s siblings also struggled, the others prospered. One sister teaches special education classes. A brother is a successful guitarist and tattoo artist. Another sister, Clementina, recently retired as the courtroom clerk for Monterey County Superior Court Judge Marla Anderson. That gave her a decent vantage point to watch over what wasn’t happening with the investigation.

“I’m not sure what they weren’t doing, but they sure weren’t figuring out why Cel died,” Clementina Zavala said, using her little sister’s nickname.

Family members agreed Aracely was a delight as a child, smart and funny. As a young adult, she turned into a charmer of a party girl. Doing drugs, like many of her friends. Parties, mostly with friends in nearby San Ardo and San Lucas and other friends near the lakes. 

Over the years, Aracely cleaned houses, took on odd jobs, worked as a security guard and sometimes entertained sugar daddies. She also had occasional legal troubles. She was convicted of stealing drugs from a Salinas drugstore. The limited paperwork in the court file makes it sound like a break-in, but it more likely was shoplifting. She had earlier admitted to transporting marijuana for sale.

She spent most of her life in southern Monterey County, but lived for about 10 years in the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border. There she worked as a receptionist at a Chevy dealership and married a guy who had spent several years in a California prison for transporting cannabis and possessing illegal weapons, according to court and state prison records. Coincidentally her ex-husband’s last name is Bernal, so that’s what’s on her headstone though she mostly went by Zavala. 

Back in South County, she had no permanent home in her final years. Her family had helped her over and over. Eventually, as with many families in similar circumstances, they had become numb to her requests. It was one of those tough-love situations. You can’t stay here anymore because we can’t keep living like this. For the last couple years of her short life, she couch-surfed with friends throughout the area.

The year before her death, Zavala and a friend from nearby Lockwood worked a few months at the small commercial outpost of Gorda on the coast south of Big Sur. It’s famous for often having the country’s highest gas prices. After returning home, both women told friends they had been raped by two law enforcement officers. Zavala’s friend still lives in the area, but is said to be mentally ill almost to the point of incoherence. 

Sheriff’s struggles

When Bernal became sheriff at the start of 2015, his investigations unit was understaffed, as it still is. In addition to the out-of-control crime rate in King City, Bernal’s administrative team was diverted by serious disciplinary issues, a rash of jail escapes and jail deaths piling up to the point that the department came under special federal monitoring.

Bernal’s leadership team turned over early and often, largely because most of his appointees had significantly more experience than he did and he wouldn’t listen to their advice, according to Bohner and other senior officers who were with the department then. 

Following eight tumultuous years as sheriff, he left office a year ago after being publicly censured by the county Board of Supervisors for illegally using taxpayer money to host a convention. At the time he also was the focus of  state Fair Political Practices Commission inquiries involving unreported gifts and suspect campaign practices. Toward the end of his time, the county was forced to pay settlements to at least two women who had been harassed by his final second-in-command, former Undersheriff John Mineau.

It isn’t clear what Bernal has been up to since leaving office, but he does perform occasionally as a country singer.

Early on, detective Robison was a political supporter of Bernal, but he said the sheriff’s shine quickly faded.

Robison said Bermal disappointed him by caring more about the trappings of office than the responsibilities. The retired detectives pointed to Bernal’s failure to have Zavala’s death and other serious matters properly investigated and his use of department resources for personal rather than professional reasons.

During an abbreviated and uncomfortable conversation with this reporter at the funeral home in January, Eddington’s wife, Geneva, said she had been questioned by a male detective and a female at some point. She didn’t say when. There were only a handful of women in the investigations unit when Zavala died. Two who were there at the time said they weren’t involved. Two others didn’t respond to messages. One of them had a well-publicized affair with Bernal that led to a financial settlement with Monterey County.

Robison said his theory when he stopped working the case was that Eddington had picked up Zavala earlier in the evening from a southside mobile home where she had been staying with an older man, possibly an uncle. They argued, or so the theory goes, and she got out of the SUV somewhere near where she was run over. Some of Zavala’s friends and survivors came to share similar theories.

“It’s only a theory,” said Robison.

“I think the biggest, the hardest part about this case was there was way too much hearsay, not enough physical evidence to put them together … . It (a violent act rather than an accident) made sense. It was logical, you know, but I didn’t have enough.”

He said it would have been pointless to present what he had to the District Attorney’s Office because “you know, you have to hand them a guilty verdict before they even take the case.”

Robison was fuzzy on some details because of the passage of time, but remembers much of it well. He said he was assigned to a more pressing matter after spending just days on the case and was moved out of the investigations unit after the other investigation ended. He said he couldn’t be sure if he was moved so he wouldn’t return to the Zavala matter, “but it wouldn’t surprise me just because I know how Bernal was. I know his mindset … . He had no business wearing a badge.”

To Zavala’s family and friends, the way the investigation unfolded illustrates how things go differently for a farmworker’s wayward daughter and a community pillar.

‘A sweet and lovely woman’

After graduation from King City High in 1975, Eddington earned a criminology degree from Fresno State University. His late father, also Robert, had been a King City cop for a time. After college, the younger Eddington worked as a Monterey County park ranger, but soon moved into the funeral business. He worked for the former Grim Funeral Chapel in King City and drove South County corpses to the morgue in Salinas under a county contract.

He worked for a Paso Robles mortuary and sold cemetery plots in Templeton before opening his own funeral home in 2011. It started in a warehouse-like building in the Rava Industrial Park on the south side of King city. That’s where it was when Aracely Zavala died. Two of her sisters said they sometimes saw her near there and wondered why.

The chapel is now in the former Grim compound, in a prime location next to the police and fire headquarters downtown. Eddington has been a volunteer firefighter for years while umpiring every level of softball and baseball in the area. His wife also has been highly active in community affairs.

There seems to be no record, but someone in law enforcement made some additional inquiry shortly after Zavala’s death. That man, possibly a CHP officer or coroner’s investigator Randy Dyck of the Sheriff’s Office, called a South County businessman thought by Zavala’s family to have introduced her to Eddington. The coroner’s office is a division of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office and operates semi-independently of the investigations unit responsible for homicide inquiries.

The businessman, who asked not to be identified, confirmed he knew both Zavala and Eddington but denied introducing them. He said he wasn’t sure if he had ever seen them together. He said he couldn’t remember who in law enforcement called him.

The businessman said he had a close relationship with Zavala, but never directly paid for sex. He said he bought pay-as-you-go cell phones for her and the car she lost to the vehicle-towing scheme. 

“Most of the time I knew her Cel was a sweet and lovely woman, a lively woman and I cared about her,” the businessman said. Toward the end, though, she started changing. She cared less about her appearance. He said her teeth were starting to weaken in the fashion of long-time methamphetamine users.

A week after Zavala was killed, Salinas TV station KSBW broadcast two reports on her death.  Both said Eddington was under investigation by the CHP but neither said why. Although Eddington acknowledged drinking beer that evening, one KSBW story said there was no evidence Eddington had been drinking.

KSBW reporter Felix Cortez told viewers, “Several people who know Eddington were shocked to hear the news. They said the businessman is an outstanding member of the community… .”

In response, Zavala’s brother Eddie, the guitarist-tattoo artist, sent an email to the station complaining that the reports made Eddington seem like the victim.

The night she died: ‘Something really wrong.’

Three of Zavala’s friends say she was acting oddly in her final days. Shannon Henchcliff was one of her oldest friends. They had cleaned houses together and often spent time with friends in nearby Lockwood. She saw Zavala early the day of her death.

“She came to my house and there was something really wrong,” Henchcliff recalled. “She wasn’t peppy like usual. She was jumpy, really nervous but she didn’t really want to talk about it. I offered her a ride but I couldn’t take her right then. She said she wanted to go see friends in San Lucas but she took off walking.”

Based on that and other conversations, Henchliff pieced some things together.

“She said someone was making her do things she didn’t want to do but she didn’t say his name.”

Henchliff said she didn’t hear about her purported relationship with Eddington until later, but she did recall her friend visiting the mortuary for some reason.

“I do remember she had talked about Paul (Range) dropping her off there.”

“She was a great, cheerful person and she didn’t deserve what happened to her,” said Henchcliff. “They should have investigated it no matter who he was.”

In the days before her death, Zavala was staying in a small mobile home behind the Queen Motel, across town from Henchcliff’s place and a couple miles from where she was killed. The trailer was occupied by Asunción Villarreal, an older man her family referred to as “Uncle,” but there is disagreement about whether he actually was related. Other women who sometimes stayed in the trailer also called him uncle. He no longer lives there. Some say he died. Others say he moved to Colorado. Or Nevada. 

After Zavala left Henchliff’s house, her friend Janice Drake spotted her walking. 

Drake is likely the first person to tell the CHP about the alleged Zavala-Eddington relationship. A friend, Monica Alexander, drove her to the CHP office in King City within days of the death.

The day she died, “I picked her up and dropped her off at the Queen Motel where her uncle lives, in the early afternoon between noon and 4,” Drake said. 

Drake works in Paso Robles and sometimes in the Alaska fisheries. She said she and Zavala were friends “forever.” She said Zavala was on the hunt for drugs and was hoping for a ride to another nearby town where she could score.

“But I was dealing with another messed up girl at the same time and couldn’t deal with two at once, so I dropped her off at the Queen Motel,” Drake recalled.

“She told me she needed money,” Drake continued. “She said, ‘I can make us some quick money. I know this guy that works at the funeral place.’”

According to a CHP report, Aracely’s sister Clementina said she initially understood that Aracely left Villarreal’s trailer around 8 p.m. to go for a walk, possibly to get cigarettes. 

Days after her friend’s death, Drake visited the trailer and heard a different account, one that was also heard by several of Aracely’s survivors. She said Villarreal, the possible uncle, told them that someone in a loud and large vehicle had picked Aracely up from the trailer a few hours before she was killed. He reportedly said he heard the vehicle but didn’t get a clear look. According to several relatives, he said it might have been white. Eddington’s SUV was white.

“People there said there was a truck or SUV that drove up there and honked and was yelling for Aracely and ran over the flower beds like after dark and knocked the flowers down,” Drake said. “I looked and I saw that the flowers were all knocked down.”

Drake theorized, “I think (Eddington) was with her and they fought and she got out on the highway and he came back and killed her. And there were no skid marks.”

Monica Alexander, the friend who drove Drake to the CHP office, said she also saw the trampled flowers. She said she thinks social standing played a big role in what happened, that night and later.

“Eddington’s a somebody and she wasn’t,” said Alexander. 

Another friend, heavy-equipment operator Don Roth, had a similar view. “She was a wonderful, lovely woman who didn’t deserve what happened,” Roth said. 

Clementina Zavala recalled when Aracely first told her about having relations with Eddington.

“My sister’s words to me, two or three months before, during Nutcracker Ballet time, she told me she was screwing him,” she said. Clementina said she was shocked because Eddington was so prominent. She said she reacted angrily at her sister’s news.

Zavala’s sometimes boyfriend, Paul Range, is a tall, lanky man who does construction work when he can find it. He said he had known Zavala all her life and was in love with her. Range says Zavala told him weeks before her death that she was planning to blackmail the mortician by threatening to reveal his sexual interests. 

“I told her that if you’re going to do it, you should do it because talking about it is the kind of thing that will get you hurt,” Range remembered.

Range said he had driven Aracely to the funeral home a couple of times and once to Paso Robles for a date with the mortician.

“I remember she was wearing a dress and I told her you never wear a dress for me,” Range recalled. “She said, ‘He likes it.’” Range said he dropped her off at the plaza in downtown Paso Robles, but didn’t actually see Eddington.

Range said Aracely had stashed her mobile phone with him shortly before her death so Eddington or law enforcement couldn’t use it to track her.  He said he later gave it and other of Zavala’s things to a woman falsely claiming to be a relative of Zavala’s. 

Living on the fringes, Aracely used her phone as her lifeline. It was how she got rides and arranged for places to crash. Investigators knew that if they were going to connect Zavala to Eddington, the easiest route would be through the phone’s usage history. 

“I know there’s evidence on her phone showing that they talked,” Range said. “How else could they arrange to meet? I should have kept that phone.”

Range’s explanation of what became of her phone doesn’t have the ring of truth because he was well-acquainted with the Zavala family and could have given them the phone any time. He insists it is a true story and that it was a big mistake.

“I thought it was really strange that she was giving me her phone,” Range said. 

Did investigators check Eddington’s phones for records of calls to or from Aracely? Former detective Robison doesn’t think so. Couldn’t his phones have also proved a connection? Quite possibly, he said.

Others involved with the sheriff’s investigative unit said Eddington’s phone carrier may have been served with a subpoena or search warrant but, if so, the resulting information must have gone into the missing pages of the sheriff’s investigative file. Could the information be retrieved now? Too late, say cyber specialists from other police agencies.

Was it Eddington who drove off with her, trampling flowers in the process? Another woman, Mona, was also staying there at the time but she, like Uncle Asunción, is not easy to find. She gave different addresses during many of her arrests.

While CHP officers and sheriff’s investigators did question a few friends of Zavala, Robison said they should have questioned more and should have questioned people in Eddington’s orbit. He said they also should have pulled video footage from businesses in the area, particularly at the Wild Horse convenience store, the largest business near the crash site. Maybe the cameras would have recorded what Zavala was doing before she was killed. Maybe they would have shown if she was with someone.

“I never saw any signs that anyone did that,” Robison. “By the time I got it (the case), any video would have been long gone.”

After Zavala was killed, Eddington stopped on the roadway, called 911 and waited for emergency crews. (The county communication center keeps recordings of 911 calls for only three years.)

Because of his work, Eddington was known to the California Highway Patrol officers, the coroner’s investigator at the scene, the fire and ambulance crews and others who responded. He said he didn’t know at first what he had hit, though he saw what looked like a woman’s hair “whipping across” his windshield. After managing to stop the Tahoe, he backed up in the dark and slowly ran over her again accidentally, he reportedly told CHP officers. Then he called 911 and waited.

A CHP report says officers smelled alcohol on Eddington’s breath. He told them he had consumed two 12-ounce bottles of Coors before starting his drive home to Paso Robles. The report says roadside sobriety and breathalyzer tests showed he was not legally intoxicated. The portion of the report open to the public didn’t list his blood-alcohol level but law enforcement sources say it was well within the legal range. 

The report says Eddington’s eyes were red but attributed that to crying about what had happened.

The family and others in law enforcement say there should have been a blood test, more accurate than roadside breath testing.  But CHP officials say blood tests can be performed only after a suspect has been arrested following a high alcohol reading in a breath test. 

Among the CHP’s questions for Eddington was why he was driving home via the frontage road, Mesa Verde Road, rather than Highway 101. If he was heading to Paso Robles as he said, it would have been logical to use the freeway, which he had to cross to reach the frontage road. He told the officers that he did just that because he planned to stop for gas at the next intersection. The publicly available reports didn’t say whether officers checked the gas gauge for confirmation that he needed gas.

In the following days or weeks, two CHP traffic officers stationed in King City did perform some investigation on their own but reportedly were taken off the case because they had little experience in homicide investigations. That’s what several Monterey County sheriff’s deputies heard at the time. There also was a jurisdictional issue. Mesa Verde Road is a county road, not a state or federal highway where the CHP has primary authority. The CHP officers involved did not respond to repeated calls and a letter about the case.

Zavala’s friend Janice Drake doesn’t know whom she spoke to when she drove to the CHP office to tell them about Zavala’s connection to Eddington except that he was “a big guy in uniform.”

Sgt. Dan Wheeler helped manage the CHP’s King City office at the time and remains in that position. He fits the description given by Drake. He’s a big fellow who was a serious football and baseball player in college. He knows Eddington well, mainly through community events. He said in a January interview that he doesn’t recall who decided to pass the matter on to the Sheriff’s Office. He said CHP records don’t touch on that, but it might have been his decision.

Randall Dyck of the coroner’s office, said to be a by-the-book detective, also may have poked into the death somewhat, but his three-page report mostly just describes what happened on the road that night and summarizes the autopsy by pathologist Venus Azar. The doctor determined that Zavala’s injuries were profound and consistent with what would be expected.

Reports written by coroner’s detectives such as Dyck are kept separate from detectives’ reports like those that went missing.

Dyck has lived in King City since before Zavala’s death and is well-acquainted with Eddington because of their jobs. He drove that night to the spot where Zavala was killed. Others there said he exclaimed, “Oh no, not Eddington” when he arrived.

Dyck’s report contained two unexpected pieces of information. Surprising most of Zavala’s friends and relatives, it says toxicology tests found no signs of drugs or alcohol in Zavala’s remains. Boyfriend Range said he wasn’t surprised, however, because Zavala frequently tried to go clean.

“She was always trying to get off the stuff,” said Range, who admits to having had drug problems of his own. At one point he and Zavala shared a meth problem. Later, he said, she shifted mostly to cocaine.

The other surprise came in the next to last paragraph of Dyck’s report. While there is no mention of the information provided earlier by Zavala’s friends Drake and Alexander, it shows that law enforcement was aware of the possible connection between Zavala and Eddington.

“On April 24, 2015, (CHP) Officer (Brock) Veillette sent me an email,” Dyck wrote. “He indicated he had received a letter from a friend of Zavala stating the driver, Robert Eddington, may have been having an affair with Zavala. Family had also said Zavala and Eddingon were having an affair. I requested the information be forwarded to the coroner’s office so I could forward it to criminal investigators for follow up.”

Sgt. Wheeler says the letter isn’t mentioned in CHP reports.

Was the information forwarded to criminal investigators in the Sheriff’s Office? Perhaps. Dyck, who still works as a coroner’s investigator, didn’t respond to voice mail messages and hung up twice when called on his cell phone. It is a pattern that continued throughout Voices’ inquiry, with several former sheriff’s staffers hanging up or declining to comment. 

Dyck’s report was approved by his supervisor in the coroner’s office, Sgt. Archie Warren, who played a key role in Bernal’s successful re-election campaign in 2018. He didn’t respond to several phone messages.

Despite the CHP’s information about a possible Zavala-Eddington relationship, Dyck’s report concludes that “this was a death of accidental causes and origin” and there was no need for additional investigation by his office. 

It seems likely that the decision to belatedly assign detectives to Zavala’s death could have grown out of her family’s decision to hire a lawyer. It isn’t clear when that happened. To pursue a possible wrongful death case against Eddington, the family picked prominent Salinas lawyer Joseph Lavorato Sr.

What Lavorato did isn’t clear. He is retired now and in poor health. Close friends say he wouldn’t have any memory of the matter. Calls to him, his law partner, former employees of his law office and his sons failed to generate any information.

It is known when Lavorato quit the case. On May 13, 2016, nearly 17 months after the death, Lavorato returned $2,500 of the family’s $3,000 retainer with a note saying there was a conflict of interest and they should find another attorney. Lavorato said he had paid $500 to an investigator, Jim Huggins. 

Huggins said he remembered the traffic death but only from the televised news reports. He said he has no record of doing any work on the matter or being paid. He said he didn’t know what the conflict might have been.

Clementina Zavala said she got the impression at the time that someone in the Sheriff’s Office had waved Lavorato off the case.

The first Monterey County sheriff’s detective assigned to the case was Martin Opseth, a quiet, by-the-book veteran with a good reputation. It appears he began his work early in 2016, an effort that ended when he retired that spring. Opseth then worked as an investigator for the SPCA of Monterey County and later moved to Las Vegas. Reached there by phone in October, he had little to say.

“I can’t help you, buddy,” he said before ending the call. He didn’t respond to a follow-up letter.

Outside the Sheriff’s Office, few people know what Opseth did on the case but he did interview Eddington at one point, he later told Ryan McGuirk, chief of investigations for the Monterey County DA’s Office. 

“Eddington said he didn’t know her,” McGuirk said.

After Opseth’s retirement, Robison was assigned to take over. He said he thinks the assignment came directly from Bernal. But he was also working other cases and was pulled off the Zavala case within days because of a higher priority. In March of 2016, then-Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillen’s AR15 assault rifle was stolen from his car parked at his home between Monterey and Salinas. Then over the next few weeks, handguns belonging to two other Salinas police officers were stolen from vehicles in the same area.

Robison was part of a team of sheriff’s detectives tasked to find the weapons. They were put on high alert. Days off were canceled. Still, it took two months to recover the guns and arrest a band of thieves. 

At a news conference, McMillin said of the deputies, “These guys worked long nights, weekends, days off, they traveled all over the place conducting surveillance.”

By the time the guns were recovered, Robison said, the Zavala investigation was mainly a memory.

A couple years later, Clementina Zavala managed to get another inquiry started. It also was short-lived.

Through her courthouse job, Clementina had gotten to know Dean Flippo, who was then Monterey County’s district attorney. Sometime before his retirement in 2018, she told him about her sister’s death and asked for help.

Two investigators from the District Attorney’s Office were assigned. Their names don’t seem to be recorded anywhere. Flippo, Clementina Zavala and McGuirk, head of the DA’s investigative unit, all said they couldn’t remember for sure who was put on the case.

Clementina was interviewed by one of the detectives. She said the only thing he asked about was Aracely’s phone. 

“He said that was probably the only way they could ever establish that they knew each other,” she recalled. 

McGuirk, the DA’s investigations supervisor, said he didn’t know if any of Eddington’s friends or relatives were ever interviewed.

“But bring me a scintilla of evidence that (Eddington and Zavala) knew each other and we’ll reopen the investigation,” he said. 

Because of the passage of time and the disappearance of the reports, it may never be possible to recreate exactly what the detectives did and didn’t do. 

Reports disappearing is something that happens “about never,” said a high-ranking official of a larger California sheriff’s department. 

Bernal’s predecessor as sheriff was Scott Miller, who also had been a Salinas and Pacific Grove police official. He said that during his long career he had heard of only one case file ever disappearing and that was after a detective’s girlfriend scattered it as revenge for something.

A recently retired detective sergeant from another Central California county said files sometimes went missing from his old office when higher-ups feared that poor performance by officers could lead to expensive litigation. 

McGuirk said he was “shocked” to learn that the sheriff’s case file had vanished. 

One investigator still with the Sheriff’s Office said it is likely the reports were tossed because of what they did not contain rather than what they did. 

The morning after Zavala died, her brother-in-law, Ray Green, drove to the crash site to see what he could see. Green is the son of a police chief. He grew up in the Salinas Valley and was a star baseball player in high school and college. He also had played recreational ball in many games officiated by Eddington. They knew each other fairly well.

In the daylight along Mesa Verde Road, Green found one of Zavala’s scuffed boots as well as some of her paperwork. He also found what he thought might have been test strips from a breathalyzer device. They weren’t.

From there, Green drove to Eddington’s business to make funeral arrangements. At that point, he didn’t know Eddington was the driver and Eddington seemingly didn’t know whom he had run over. 

Green recalled, “He said, ‘’I didn’t know it was her,’ and he cried.”

“We both cried.”

Green said Eddington offered to handle the funeral arrangements for free but the family vetoed the idea as inappropriate. The funeral was held at Struve & LaPorte Chapel in Salinas. Zavala’s ex-husband paid for it.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

6 thoughts on “Suspicious King City traffic death was never truly investigated Former Monterey County sheriff’s detective says it was a cover-up

  1. Sal was a kind and loving person and she was someone’s mother daughter sister and friend. Im so thankful this case is being reopened. Nobody deserves death. I was always taught if you dont have nothing nice to say dont say it. This could have been anyone’s child. She had a heart of gold no matter what anyone’s opinions are. I loved her and she will forever be in my heart. Gone but never forgotten.

  2. I was so excited , as I started reading this , then I got mad , sad and started crying . I moved from King City in 2006 , and she was messing with Robert Eddington that far back . I’m guessing all the bad things said about her, here are ment to connect her to Mr . Eddington . My daughter called me crying , asking if I had read this article. My family and I have a different opinion on Sally , she had so much love, dingyness, and sometimes didn’t know how to “just stop”. She never ment to hurt or mess things up. I’m just sorry Sal that these things are being written about you . We love you , miss you and I know your taking care of Cameron, Zaky’s baby till I get there . Thank you

  3. Cel was an AMAZING BEAUTIFUL HUMAN BEING! I feel SO BLESSED to call her my friend! I was just thinking about her yesterday and then I find this article! What a Nightmare! I send my MOST HEARTFELT CONDOLENCES to all of her Family and friends! Don’t worry…. KARMA is on her way!!

  4. I DK Royal. WHile this story is obviously well researched & well documented investigative journalism with lots of smoke, there seems to be little fire right now. From my extensive knowledge of “hard-bitten, scotch drinking ,cigar smoking editors” coming mostly from the movies, I would say in the good old days it would not be ready for publishing yet. Lots of work put into it though.

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