The Napa woman charged with critically injuring a Vine bus driver and fleeing the scene was responsible for a collision two months earlier that left a local man’s foot dangling from his body, a California Highway Patrol report shows.
James Yeager, 36, says he was decorating his southeast Napa home on the morning of Nov. 17 before the collision. He assembled his dancing “Rockin’ Santa” figure and strung lights along the first story of his house.
The Yeagers had extra Christmas lights that year. His five kids — aged 4, 5, 10, 11 and 16 — wanted to see the second story of their home illuminated, he said. Yeager, dressed in Nike sneakers and a sweatshirt, strapped on his helmet, hopped on his black Harley Davidson and left to purchase clips to hold the lights in place.
It was a clear Saturday morning, the CHP report said. Neighbors were outside, unloading groceries and working on a Christmas parade float, Yeager said.
Yeager told CHP that he was driving along Shetler Avenue shortly after 10 a.m. at about 30 to 35 mph. At the same time, Napa resident Alexandra Benay Varellas, 21, approached a stop sign on Parrish Road at Shetler in her Honda Civic, according to the report.
Varellas declined to comment for this article, but told CHP that she missed a turn, paused at the stop sign, did not see Yeager’s motorcycle to her right, and proceeded into Shetler to make a U-turn, according to the report.
Yeager’s motorcycle hit the right side of her Civic. His body went over the handlebars, hit the right side of her back window, rolled over to the front of her car and flew into the air, he said.
Varellas told police that she finished her U-turn, parked and returned to the scene to wait for emergency personnel, according to the report. She was there when CHP arrived.
But Yeager, who lay on the asphalt bloody and in excruciating pain, disagreed with her characterization of the moments after the collision.
“That’s when I saw her peel out and take off,” he said.
Yeager’s heart dropped, he said, and he was in shock. The collision occurred in a residential area and he screamed out for help, pleading with neighbors to chase down the car. Neighbors caught up to Varellas and took down her license plate information before she returned to the scene, he said.
“I can’t tell you the fear that I felt,” Yeager said. “When you’re on the ground and traumatized … you just feel this abandonment.”
CHP determined Varellas was at fault because she failed to yield to Yeager, but did not cite her. It’s not uncommon for an officer to decline to cite a driver who caused an accident, said Officer Vince Pompliano, who reviewed the report.
Yeager was given a ticket for driving with an expired license, court records show.
He said he was taken to Queen of the Valley Medical Center, where he sat for hours with a broken hand and mangled foot. Yeager said he spent Thanksgiving on the couch, with his foot propped up.
Doctors said Yeager could have his foot amputated or have surgeons attempt to salvage it. The recovery time for amputation might be faster, which could mean the difference between keeping and losing his house, he said. Yeager couldn’t bring himself to accept a lifetime of hopping to the shower each morning and crawling to bed at night.
Doctors at Kaiser facilities in Vacaville and San Francisco have performed five surgeries on Yeager since the collision.
The bottom of his foot, which had been sewed up, died and was ripped off, he said. Doctors took tissue from the length of his thigh and sewed it onto his foot and ankle. That surgery lasted almost 14 hours — slightly longer than the 10-hour follow-up surgery he needed to reconnect nerves to that part of his foot, he said.
While in the hospital, Yeager said he started to forgive Varellas for her role in the incident. He had good medical insurance, he was alive, and accidents happen, he said.
Then Yeager’s wife, while visiting him in the hospital, saw on Facebook that Napa police had arrested Varellas on suspicion of committing a January hit-and-run that left 62-year-old bus driver Mary Jackson seriously hurt after she attempted to jaywalk across Soscol Avenue. Yeager said he was heartbroken.
“Mistakes happen, but do they happen twice?” he said.
Varellas has pleaded not guilty to a felony hit-and-run charge in court, records show. A police report filed in court says that she told a Napa police officer twice that she collided with Jackson.
Yeager, a Kaiser sonographer, said he has good health insurance but is worried he won’t be able to return to his role. Money is becoming tight — disability pays only so much, and he said he expects to run out of sick leave, vacation time and start losing benefits in March.
Jackson, victim of the January hit-and-run, faces a financial predicament of her own.
Her family created a GoFundMe page to crowd-source donations and defray the cost of medical treatment for injuries including a fractured skull, fractures to both legs and arms, broken ribs and vertebrae, a broken collarbone and shoulder and internal injuries.
Ray Baslee, Jackson’s brother, said his sister is making progress every day and will probably not need additional surgeries.
She’s had four major surgeries, including a recent procedure involving both of her knees at Kaiser’s Vacaville facility, and will probably face another three months of bed rest before starting therapy, he said.
Yeager reached out to Baslee to notify him of his incident, and Baslee said he was surprised.
“We were comparing notes and it just seemed to be true to form,” Baslee said.
Jackson does not recall the crash and did not know that she had been hit by a car, Baslee said. Her memory seems fine otherwise and she hopes to find room in a Napa facility that can care for her.
Yeager, meanwhile, has been recovering at home in Napa since Jan. 24, where he must keep his foot elevated all but two hours per day, an hour at a time. His family redresses his wound twice a day.
He jokes that he’s become a “couch parent,” and says it pains him that his 4- and 5-year-old children don’t understand why their dad can’t walk, play or help coach softball like before.
Yeager said he feels a mix of emotions.
“I feel blessed regardless,” he said.
It was another relaxing session of cold-laser therapy for Mickey and his injured legs, as 21st-century medicine came to the aid of an animal that’s been bonding with humans since prehistoric times.
Mickey is one of the 20 horses living at Sunrise Horse Rescue. He’d recently gotten loose and cut up his legs on the wires of a drip line. He’d still be in bandages for another week or two, but he was healing up beautifully with the help of twice-weekly laser treatments.
As he waited for the veterinarians to arrive, Mickey gave a friendly neigh in the direction of Lindsay Merget, managing director of Sunrise, and a visitor. On the subject of his past, he is silent, but what we know for sure is that at some point a previous owner gave up on him.
Mickey would have ended up in a slaughterhouse if not for a friendly human who bought him at auction and brought him to Sunrise, where he could live out his remaining days in peace, with a healthy diet, loving caregivers, and expert veterinary treatment.
Sunrise spent most of 2018 regaining its footing after the 2017 wildfires. As Merget’s own house was burning in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, she was on the phone with other Sunrise supporters organizing the evacuation of the main herd from Sunrise’s rented home at Tamber Bey Vineyards’ Sundance Ranch on Tubbs Lane outside Calistoga.
With the help of six trailers, the horses were evacuated to Martinez. They spent the next few weeks there until the smoke had cleared enough for them to go home.
Now that things are back to normal, Sunrise is facing a challenge that’s less dramatic but just as serious: the lack of a permanent home.
Tamber Bey has been leasing space to Sunrise since 2016, and Merget said she and other Sunrise supporters appreciate the temporary quarters. But without land of their own, they can’t make the sorts of capital improvements that would allow them to expand the herd and take the operation to the next level.
“The biggest hurdle we have looking ahead to 2019 is finding a property where we can thrive and run all the programs we need to run to be self-sustainable and realize our vision,” Merget said.
Sunrise was in escrow to buy 32 acres on Tubbs Lane, just down the road from its current home, but it couldn’t pull together enough financing. The deal fell through with organizers still several hundred thousand dollars short of what they needed.
That was a bitter disappointment, but Merget is still proud of what Sunrise has accomplished.
One of its early missions was to become a household name and thus raise awareness of the plight of unwanted horses. It has succeeded, but with that success has come greater responsibility and more frequent calls for help. Sunrise has a list of more than 100 horses in the area that need new homes.
On one recent day, it received five calls about horses who needed help, either because their owner has moved away or no longer has the resources or the inclination to give them the food and care they need.
That was the case with Palo, a horse Merget described as a “walking skeleton” in his late teens or early 20s who joined the Sunrise herd the day before Thanksgiving. His previous owner couldn’t afford to give him the special diet he needed, so he’d been severely starved. Desperate for nourishment, he’d been eating whatever he could find on the ground, so sand had built up in his gut.
Bringing back horses from the verge of starvation is complicated because their emaciated bodies can’t handle a normal diet. Sunrise followed dietary recommendations from vets at UC-Davis, but Palo was too far gone. He died in mid-December.
“As a sanctuary, we are the last stop,” Merget said. “It’s our responsibility to see them through their final transition and be sure that it’s as humane and comfortable as possible.”
That could mean an investment of weeks, as with Palo, or more than a decade.
“A horse lives 25 or 30 years – twice as long as a dog,” said veterinarian Vanessa G.B. Rood when she arrived to give Mickey his laser treatment. “People don’t realize that when they take on a horse that’s 5, 10 years old, they’ll have to support the horse for potentially another 20 years.”
As horses get older, they develop special needs and sometimes can’t handle the tasks they’ve been bred or bought for, such as riding lessons, dressage or racing. Most of the horses at Sunrise are there because they need special care, which makes them more expensive to take care of than completely healthy horses. It typically costs $6,000-$8,000 a year to take care of a Sunrise horse.
Sunrise isn’t expanding its physical infrastructure until it finds a new home, but is adding staff, including Rood, who’d previously provided veterinary care for Sunrise through Napa Valley Equine.
“I’ve seen a lot of different organizations, and Sunrise is very sophisticated in their mission, their practice and their care,” Rood said. “They’re poised to evolve into even more of a leader in horse advocacy and welfare.”
Other new staffers include Terra Munger, team leader/horse trainer, and Jill Vincent, business manager. Meanwhile, the Sunrise board has expanded to include Claudia Sonder, a veterinarian and former member of Sunrise’s advisory board who Merget said is highly respected in the horse community, and Sophie Gullung, a real estate agent at Pacific Union.
Sunrise is also promoting a program in which a winery can sponsor a horse at a cost of $4,000 for six months or $6,000 for one year. Those sponsorships are a win for Sunrise, which gets cash to support the horse, and for the winery, which receives a plaque to hang in their tasting room and promotional materials to use on social media. To learn more about the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organizers are also starting to plan their annual Harvest of Hope fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 14. But on a day-to-day basis, most of the staff and volunteers focus on caring for the main herd and trying to help the more than 100 horses scattered around the Napa Valley who would welcome a second chance at happiness.
“They deserve much more than being discarded and, in the worst case, sent to an auction where they are bought by a meat buyer and sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico,” Merget said. “That’s a really horrible fate for these horses that have spent their whole lives in service to their owners.”
Nothing would please Sunrise’s staff and volunteers more than a permanent home that would allow them to save more horses and expand the herd. The Sunrise staff and volunteers share “a deep sense of purpose” in providing well-rounded care for horses, Rood said.
“You see that bond here in the limited scope of a rescue, but it’s been echoed through hundreds of thousands of years of the horse-human bond,” Rood said.
For more information, visit SunriseHorseRescue.org.
American Canyon will continue looking to the proposed, massive Sites reservoir in Colusa County to someday help slake its thirst.
The city of about 20,000 residents is the only Napa County city without a local reservoir. It depends on the state’s North Bay Aqueduct that pumps water out of Barker Slough, a dead-end slough in the Solano County portion of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Supply reliability is tied to the Sierra snowpack that melts and sends water into the state’s Lake Oroville reservoir that feeds into the Delta. From year to year, it’s wait-and-see how much of the American Canyon allocation will actually arrive.
“During the drought, we were acutely aware we needed to find something,” City Councilmember David Oro said at the Feb. 5 City Council meeting.
The City Council unanimously approved spending $240,000 this year to continue participating in the Sites project. Among the few dozen other participants are Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Antelope Valley and Santa Clara.
Sites reservoir could be built by 2030 and would hold 1.8 million acre-feet of water, slightly more than Napa County’s Lake Berryessa (1 acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water). No river would be dammed. Instead, water would be pumped in during high winter flows from the Sacramento River and its tributaries, a city report said.
American Canyon is allocated 5,200 acre-feet of North Bay Aqueduct water annually, but in an average year receives 3,200 acre-feet. The city wants to have 4,000 acre-feet available in Sites reservoir as a hedge against dry years.
“Sites gives you better control to balance your portfolio of water supplies than what’s available today by the state or even the federal projects,” Sites Project Authority General Manager Jim Watson told the council.
The water would have to get from Sites to American Canyon. That would be done by releasing the water into the Sacramento River and having American Canyon pump the allocation from Barker Slough into the North Bay Aqueduct for local delivery.
Some City Council members expressed concern. The North Bay Aqueduct—which also provides Delta water to the city of Napa and to Calistoga, as well as several Solano County cities—faces issues of its own.
City officials said the aqueduct has capacity constraints because of biomass built up on the inside of the pipe. Plus, the rare Delta smelt can prompt pumping restrictions to avoid having fish sucked up and killed. Plus, dead-end Barker Slough has water quality problems.
“Because that straw is small or dirty or whatever it is, is there ever a time when we couldn’t get the water we needed?” Oro said.
Public Works Director Steven Hartwig didn’t mention any immediate problems. At times when water demand in the two counties is the greatest, most Solano County cities use Lake Berryessa reservoir water, he said.
“So far, the capacity overall and the constriction hasn’t really been an issue because of the timing of when everybody takes their water,” Hartwig said.
Long-range, the plan is to build new North Bay Aqueduct pumps in the Sacramento River, away from the Barker Slough smelt and water quality issues.
The Sierra Club has opposed building Sites, instead encouraging such alternatives as better groundwater management. The group sees environmental problems even for a proposed reservoir that doesn’t involve damming a river, given filling it would involve siphoning off Sacramento River winter flows and flooding a valley.
Hartwig described how Sites could help the environment. The reservoir would release water at times that would provide the greatest environmental benefits, he said.
“That’s the reason our state and federal partners are interested in this — because it helps support the health of the Delta,” Hartwig said.
American Canyon’s cost to participate in the Sites project was included in the city’s 2018 water rate study and the water rates approved by the council in May 2018, a city report said.
The city decided in February 2017 to participate in the Sites project. To date, the city has spent $120,000 in the hope that it will one day be receiving Sites water. The $240,000 approved on Feb. 5 is the latest installment to continue as a partner.