A woman sleeping in a homeless encampment in Modesto was killed when she was hit by heavy machinery used by Caltrans to clean up the property, according to Modesto police.
The woman had been sleeping in a cardboard box on the grassy area along Highway 99 south of Kansas Avenue, according to a man who was there that morning.
Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have not commented on the investigation about the Aug. 1 incident despite multiple calls from The Bee.
However, Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll, whose department homicide detectives were called to the scene after the body was discovered, confirmed Tuesday how she died.
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Once it was discovered it was not a homicide, the investigation was turned over to the CHP because the accident occurred on state property.
The Modesto Bee has been inquiring with the CHP for weeks regarding the outcome of the investigation but the agency, as well as Caltrans, have released no details.
The incident occurred four months after the union that represents Caltrans workers filed a grievance regarding homeless encampment cleanups, saying workers are not given sufficient protective gear or training for that kind of work. The state rejected the grievance.
CHP Officer Tom Olsen said the Modesto area CHP is working with the agency’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team based in Fresno and would not comment on the details of the case involving the woman’s death until the investigation is complete.
Caltrans did release this statement earlier this month: “Our sympathies go out to the family of the woman who was found earlier this month during an encampment cleanup along State Route 99 in Modesto. The incident is currently being investigated jointly by the CHP Fresno area office and the Modesto Police Department.”
It’s unclear whether the person driving the heavy machinery was a state employee or a private employee contracted to do work for Caltrans.
Initially investigators could not identify the woman, known among other homeless only as “Sunshine,” but she was identified last week as 33-year-old Shannon Marie Bigley.
The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office is waiting for the CHP to finish its investigation before completing Bigley’s death certificate. Her manner of death has been classified as an “accident.”
Bigley was from Oregon but her last known address was in Stockton and she only recently had been staying at the encampment in Modesto, according to the Coroner’s Office.
On Tuesday, the encampment south of Kansas Avenue remained. Mattresses and sleeping bags surrounded by the personal possessions of the homeless who stay there were tucked under the shade of a few bushes bordering a chain-link fence.
One man, who would identify himself only as Anthony, showed a Bee reporter and photographer where Bigley had been sleeping inside a cardboard box the morning she died.
Scattered trash remained at the site and tire tread impressions in the dirt show where the heavy machinery stopped after her body was discovered.
Anthony said encampments he’s lived in have been the subject of Caltrans cleanup many times in the past, but this time was different.
He said in all the others, a supervisor would go around and wake anyone still there sleeping and tell them to leave.
On Aug. 1, he was awakened by the sound of a horn coming from the heavy machinery. Anthony said he looked up to see it idling just 15 feet from him.
For Caltrans, the typical camp cleanup takes days to complete, beginning with a notification posted at the site at least 72 hours before crews arrive, according to a Sacramento Bee story.
Caltrans workers are escorted by state or local law enforcement and, in some cases, social workers and homeless advocates, according to the story.
In April, Steve Crouch, the director of public employees for the union that representing Caltrans maintenance workers filed a grievance, asking Caltrans to create special crews to clear homeless camps before road maintenance. The union wanted Caltrans to provide members of the crews training, vaccinations and equipment to handle hazardous materials. Caltrans and the state Human Resources Department rejected the request.
In a June 5 letter, the department wrote it already provides training and vaccinations for homeless camp removal.
“Only employees specially trained to handle hazardous materials and use (protective equipment) are authorized to enter the encampment to begin cleanup operations,” the letter said. “We do not believe the department is required to establish crews to perform these duties. There are employees in several maintenance classifications who may be tasked with performing these duties.”
On Wednesday, Crouch filed another grievance contending that Caltrans is in violation of its work classifications for the workers doing these cleanups.
“They are not professional hazmat workers,” he said. “If you look at their job classification, nowhere is it mentioned that they clean up homeless encampments.”
The grievance demands that Caltrans immediately cease and desist having workers perform homeless encampment cleanups.
Olsen said Caltrans has called the CHP to assist on homeless encampment cleanup in the past but he would not say if the CHP was called on Aug. 1, again citing the ongoing investigation.
Caltrans also would not comment on whether law enforcement was called on Aug. 1 before the cleanup began, whether crews searched the area before operating heavy machinery, or whether the department’s procedures were followed. Instead, a department spokesperson on Tuesday referred back to the same two-sentence statement it released regarding the woman’s death.
How we reported this story
The Bee initially reported Aug. 1 that a body had been found by Caltrans workers. Initially, the death was classified as suspicious but later that day police said they determined she had not been the victim of a homicide. Follow-up reporting with the Stanislaus County Coroner’s office, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol found the incident under investigation since it happened. At the request of the coroner’s office, The Bee ran a story asking for the public’s help to identify her. A Bee reporter and photographer went to the site of the incident and spoke with several people who knew the victim, including one man who’d driven her to a homeless shelter in Stockton, which identified her. A Bee reporter contacted family members of the woman, who initially agreed to an interview but changed their minds after talking with the CHP. Interviews and attempts to seek comment followed with Caltrans, the union representing Caltrans workers, the CHP and the Modesto Police Department.