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Sheriff's detective will not face vehicular manslaughter charges

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Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2004 10:00 pm

San Joaquin County Sheriff's Detective Deborah Scheffel will not face vehicular manslaughter charges related to a fatal accident in Santa Cruz, prosecutors there said Tuesday.

Scheffel, one of the department's star homicide detectives who has been featured in nationally televised documentaries, was on vacation the day after Valentine's Day. She was driving along Highway 1 in her motor home when she came upon a small car that was waiting to turn left.

Unable to stop in time, Scheffel rear-ended the car, which was pushed into oncoming traffic. The driver, Zdenek Zajic, died instantly after colliding with another car. His wife and 2-year-old child received minor injuries.

Following the collision, in which Scheffel tried to help the victims, she transferred out of the homicide unit. The accident took such a toll on her that she didn't want to compromise future murder cases, she told the News-Sentinel in May.

Scheffel was out of the office Tuesday, Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nellie Stone said.

Though the California Highway Patrol recommended that Scheffel be charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without malice, prosecutors decided not to prosecute her.

The crash was caused by a combination of factors, said Barbara Rizzieri, a Santa Cruz County deputy district attorney.

The recreational vehicle was new to Scheffel, who didn't know that the camper's rear brakes weren't working properly, Rizzieri said.

Had that been the only factor, charges would have likely been filed, she said. But no brake lights or turn signal were seen on Zajic's car, and the steering wheel was turned to the left at the time of impact. When Scheffel braked and tried to swerve, she clipped the car's right rear side and sent it into oncoming traffic.

The case was under investigation for some time and Rizzieri consulted with other prosecutors before making a final decision. She said she did not mention Scheffel's job so that there would be no bias.

Scheffel, a 21-year deputy, has worked on several high-profile cases that drew national attention.

In April 2003, her investigation into the poisoning death of attorney Larry McNabney came to a close when college student and legal secretary Sarah Dutra was convicted of manslaughter. McNabney's wife, who led investigators on a trail across the country, had confessed to the murder before committing suicide in a Florida jail cell. The story was made into an hour-long documentary that aired this spring on CourtTV.

That case came on the heels of a multiple-murder investigation that ended when Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog were convicted of murder. Shermantine is on death row and Herzog is serving a 78-year sentence.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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