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Santa Rosa police say pedestrians hit by cars were intoxicated and at fault

Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 4:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 4:03 p.m.

Two Santa Rosa pedestrians hit by vehicles in recent crashes, one killed and one still hospitalized, were highly intoxicated and at fault, reported Santa Rosa police Wednesday.

In one, on Guerneville Road, both the pedestrian and driver were drunk, said Santa Rosa traffic Sgt. Rich Celli.

The combination of intoxicated pedestrians being hit by cars continues a long string of fatal and serious collisions in Santa Rosa over the last two years.

A witness to the pre-dawn Oct. 15 crash at College and Mendocino avenues saw a man stagger into the crosswalk against the light, said Celli.

The westbound driver apparently had the green light and told officers he didn't see the man until the last moment.

Longtime transient Joseph Von Merta's blood-alcohol level was 0.289 percent, more than three times the legal limit for driving.

Von Merta, who died hours after the crash, was at fault, police determined.

On Nov. 4, in the middle of the night, Robert Brian McKee, 49, apparently was walking across Guerneville Road at Coffey Lane. The driver who hit him didn't stop.

About 15 minutes after the 12:20 a.m. crash officers arrested driver Christian Pena Ballesteros, 30, of Santa Rosa. He was stopped a few blocks away.

Pedestrian McKee had a preliminary blood-alcohol level of 0.2. The driver's blood-alcohol level was 0.13, according to police reports.

The legal limit for drivers having alcohol is a level of .08 percent.

McKee remained hospitalized Wednesday in fair condition at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He had suffered several serious injuries, including a broken spine and head trauma, and police initially weren't sure he'd survive.

McKee, a tree trimmer, had recently moved to Santa Rosa from Redwood Valley and was staying with friends in a townhouse near where he was hit, said Celli.

His car was parked across Guerneville Road and he could have been coming from the car or walking to it, said Celli. It wasn't clear whether McKee was in the crosswalk.

“We believe McKee is at fault,” based in part on a witness statement indicating the driver had the green light, Celli said.

Five days after Von Merta's fatal collision, Santa Rosa resident Alejandro Torres, 24, was hit by a car on Mission Boulevard. He was walking across the street in a crosswalk to his nearby home.

He died hours later. Alcohol was not a factor, Celli said. Whether the driver or pedestrian was at fault remained under investigation.

Ten pedestrians have been killed by cars in Santa Rosa since January 2011. Two more people suffered life-threatening injuries but survived.

Nine of the victims, all men, were intoxicated and found to be at fault. Seven of the men were homeless.

Many of the cases were similar, with the victims wearing dark clothing at night while walking against traffic.

“Pedestrians in the roadway have the right-of-way but they have to use due caution,” said Celli. “You can't burden the driver with a surprise and expect them to stop.”

Sonoma County public health supervisor Kelly Elder said the repeat cases of intoxicated pedestrians being hit by cars is frustrating and tragic.

“These are preventable situations,” Elder said.

Drunken driving, chronic alcoholism and the needs of area homeless people are all difficult issues and priorities to the county, said Elder, section manager of health policy planning and evaluation.

“We work with police to help educate the community,” she said.

The county now offers 12 classes annually and more on demand to teach employees of bars, restaurants, liquor stores and wineries how to avoid selling alcohol to intoxicated people, Elder said.

County employees also have started collecting data including where a suspected drunken driver got his or her last drink.

They're looking for place and timing patterns in an effort to further educate employees about over-serving, she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.)

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