It was nearly a year ago that Bakersfield Police Officer Chad Ott found himself heading up an investigation into the hit-and-run death of a 65-year-old motorist on Stockdale Highway.
The investigation would consume countless hours of his working life over the following 10 months.
According to nearly 200 pages of the BPD's investigative reports acquired by The Californian, the investigation would ultimately focus on Driver No. 1, an unidentified woman in a gray Nissan Sentra who allegedly triggered the four-vehicle chain-reaction crash July 22, then left the scene after stopping only briefly.
In the wake of the crash, the family of the victim, Deborah Ann Geneau, was left devastated and heartbroken by the loss of their family matriarch.
"I lost my wife. The kids lost their mother and grandmother," said Rick Geneau, Deborah Geneau's husband.
All these months later, the family's grief remains tender and raw. But they are clearly thankful for the efforts of BPD investigators.
"No words can describe how tenacious they were," Geneau said of Ott and everyone at the BPD who took part in the investigation.
"I have nothing but praise for them," he said.
Ott's investigation might have failed. In fact it nearly did when leads dried up and the case was closed last winter. But little by little, piece by piece, data point by data point, the 8-year veteran traffic officer gathered evidence to piece together what had happened — and ultimately, to find and arrest Driver No. 1.
The work required diligence and attention to the smallest of details.
"He's one of the smartest officers I’ve ever met. His brain just works on a whole other level," BPD Sgt. Rex Davenport said of the younger officer.
The chain-reaction crash that day went from bad to horrific.
It was midday, about 1:09 p.m. when the incident began in the westbound lanes of Stockade Highway, west of Coffee Road and east of Don Hart Drive East.
Driver No. 1 was in the lane closest to the shoulder of the road when she allegedly made an unsafe lane change, lightly striking the passenger-side fender of the car in the middle lane, leaving almost no damage to her Sentra.
Police interviews with Driver No. 2 identified him as Alexander Acosta-Alvarenga, 19. Although he told police he was driving at about 50 mph, crash data retrieved from the Lexus he was driving showed he was doing about 65 mph when he overcorrected to his left, striking a gray Honda four-door being driven in the No. 1 lane by Tahir Mandvi, 21.
According to Ott, Mandvi was also speeding — traveling at between 68 and 70 mph in the 55 mph zone. By looking at data retrieved from the Honda, Ott said analysis of his steering indicated Mandvi "super-panicked, super-overcorrected" after the vehicle he was driving was struck by Driver No. 2.
According to BPD reports, that vehicle went airborne as it crossed over the concrete median into the eastbound lane where Deborah Geneau was driving.
"Vehicle #3 lands on Vehicle #4 ... sheering the top of it open and apart," the report states.
The Bakersfield wife and mother never had a chance. She died at the scene. Ironically, it appeared Geneau was the only one of the four drivers who was not speeding.
The search for Driver No. 1
Immediately Ott began canvassing area businesses for surveillance video.
He obtained several copies of varying quality, including Redflex surveillance video from the intersection of Stockdale Highway and Coffee Road. He also found video at El Pollo Loco, Burger King, BBVA Bank and elsewhere.
Five days after the crash Ott went to Golden Empire Transit in hopes of obtaining surveillance video from GET buses he had spotted in the area on other surveillance video he had obtained.
Video from two buses turned out to be of excellent quality. In an early breakthrough in the case, they included footage of the Nissan Sentra.
The surveillance videos from these and other sources were compiled and released to local news outlets appealing for assistance from the public in locating Vehicle #1 and its elusive driver.
The video showed the gray Nissan Sentra sedan appeared to have been 2013-2019. It had a large white rectangular decal on the lower driver's-side windshield.
The decal would prove to be of monumental importance.
The investigation drags — and then doesn't
Extensive follow-up was conducted following leads generated by the public. But Ott said nearly 100 tips from area residents went nowhere.
"Everybody and his uncle called about the gray Sentra," he said. "Every officer was called out to check on these tips."
A reward offered for information leading to the arrest of the driver of the Sentra may actually have exacerbated the problem, Ott said, as useless calls flowed in.
One Eureka moment came when Ott figured out the significance of the white decal. In the course of his regular duty, he began to occasionally see similar decals. And when he asked motorists, it turned out they were stickers exclusive to vehicles purchased at Carmax.
After much back and forth, Ott obtained a search warrant. He asked Carmax for information on all silver or gray Sentras sold by Carmax over about a two-year span.
He got 156 hits.
That's when he began generating search warrants for cell phone data, information that could tell him exactly where a given person was at a given time in a particular patch of geography.
How many man-hours?
"Oh, tons," he said. It's a slow process of elimination, figuring out who on the list matches.
"It's so tedious," he said.
Eventually, Ott burned through seven search warrants.
By the time Ott located the car, it had been repossessed and towed to Riverside for auction.
"I called them and said, 'Don't sell that car! We're on our way."
After retrieving the Sentra, it was clear all the pieces were falling into place. A search warrant was obtained for the residence of Stephanie Heninger, 42, of Bakersfield. A records check showed Heninger had been the registered owner, and that she had purchased it at Carmax less than one month before the fatal crash.
After obtaining a search warrant for Heninger's residence, Ott and a couple of other officers knocked on her door on April 30. In an interview videotaped in her home, Ott showed her some of the evidence he had compiled.
After initial denials, she broke down and acknowledged she was driving the Sentra that fateful day in July, according to Ott and his videotaped conversation with Heninger.
"I asked Stephanie Heninger what she would tell the victim's family in regards to why she never attempted to come forward," Ott wrote in his report.
She "said she was sorry and she would repay them saying, "I'll go to work and pay fines."
On May 4, Heninger was arraigned on charges of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, a misdemeanor, and hit-and-run resulting in injury, a felony. If convicted, she faces more than 10 years in prison.
This incident was not Heninger's first run-in with the law. According to court records, she was arrested Sept. 10 and charged with misdemeanor battery of a spouse or ex-spouse. That court case is still pending.
Investigators in that case did not connect her car to the fatal hit-and-run accident that had occurred 50 days earlier.
A call to the deputy public defender assigned to Heninger's hit-and-run case was not returned Friday.
The strangest thing, according to Ott, is had Heninger remained at the scene of the fatal collision, she would likely not be facing time behind bars if convicted.
"I could have given her a ticket, a misdemeanor," he said. "That's it."
Matt Clark, an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles, is representing the Geneau family in a civil suit. He said he was astonished by the effort Ott put into the case.
"This Officer Ott is the blue-ribbon winner of the diligence award," Clark said.
"He deserves a promotion. I've been in this business 20 years," Clark said, "and I've never seen such a level of dedication."