Death of homeless woman during Caltrans cleanup operation ruled an accident

Woman found dead at Modesto homeless encampment

A Caltrans crew found a body in an area of vegetation between southbound Highway 99 and the 700 block of Kansas Avenue in Modesto, CA, on Wednesday Aug. 1 2018.
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A Caltrans crew found a body in an area of vegetation between southbound Highway 99 and the 700 block of Kansas Avenue in Modesto, CA, on Wednesday Aug. 1 2018.

A homeless woman who died during a Caltrans homeless encampment cleanup in Modesto last summer was crushed by the bucket of a front loader. The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office has determined the death was an accident and the equipment operator has returned to work.

Shannon Marie Bigley, 33, had been sleeping in a grassy ravine area along Highway 99 south of Kansas Avenue on Aug. 1 when she was killed.

The Caltrans equipment operator, identified in police reports as 47-year-old Brady Walker of Modesto, has been on administrative time off since Oct. 5, said Steve Crouch, the director of public employees for the union that represents maintenance workers for the California Department of Transportation.

Walker returned to work Tuesday, he said. He did not know why Walker was not put on leave until more than two months after the accident.

California Highway Patrol investigators found that “(Walker’s) actions, of using the loader’s bucket to scrape debris backwards, unintentionally caused the death of Ms. Bigley,” according to a coroner’s report.

Crouch said the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office “cleared” Walker of “wrongdoing.”

District Attorney Birgit Fladager confirmed that in an email to The Modesto Bee.

“We did fully review the matter for consideration of any potential criminal charges and made the determination that none were appropriate under the facts,” she said.

Bigley died of injuries to her head, neck, chest and abdomen, according to the coroner’s report. Her entire skull was fractured, and her neck was broken and lungs lacerated, among other injuries.

A toxicology report showed she had used methamphetamine prior to her death.

Reached by telephone Thursday, Walker referred comment about the investigation to his union representative but said, “I am not doing good. It has been hell. That is all I can tell you.”

When asked to elaborate, he said, “Just all of it. I would never wish this on my worst enemy.”

Walker told a Modesto police officer that he arrived at the encampment at 5:15 a.m., about an hour before sunrise, and “spoke with a group of homeless individuals about doing some work in the area,” the coroner’s report says.

According to a Modesto Police Department report, Walker said he asked two homeless men about items in the ravine and they told him it was all garbage. “Walker then drove his front loader into the ravine,” the report reads.

“The operator made his first run with the dozer around (5:40 a.m.),” the coroner’s report says,” and while backing up observed some legs in the trash.”

Bigley was found lying face down on cardboard, her head turned to the left. There was a large amount of blood around her head and upper body, according to reports.

As it became clear that Bigley’s death was a result of a “traffic accident” and not a homicide, the CHP took the lead on the investigation.

Although it is the CHP’s practice to release preliminary information about traffic accidents in a press release, the agency withheld all details about what happened to Bigley when The Bee inquired shortly after her August death.

The CHP said the reason for withholding information was that the investigation was ongoing. But asked again Wednesday upon the completion of the investigation, the CHP still would not provide answers about the accident.

Caltrans also would not comment about it or even acknowledge how Bigley died. On Thursday, it released this statement: “Our sympathies go out to the family of Shannon Bigley. We appreciate the CHP’s efforts in conducting a thorough investigation, however we are unable to discuss further due to pending litigation.”

Bigley’s father Maurice filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Caltrans in November. A case management conference in Stanislaus Superior Court is scheduled for April.

Through their attorney, family members would not comment on Thursday. But the lawyer, Eric Khodadian, said in an email: “The coroner’s report is further evidence that Caltrans carelessly and negligently caused the death of Shannon Bigley. We have to change the way we treat the homeless in our state. How many more people have to die before Caltrans changes their ways?”

Caltrans and the CHP haven’t provided answers to basic questions including whether Walker was working at the camp alone, if he or anyone else checked the ravine before he drove the loader in, or if any policies were violated that day or have been changed as a result.

All over the state, Caltrans is clearing as many as 40 camps every day along highways and underpasses, aiming to keep roads free of hazards and to clean up sites that can collect trash and hazardous waste.

The amount Caltrans spends annually on clearing these camps has tripled in the last five years, reaching $12.4 million in the 2017-18 budget year.

Cleanup on the camp off Kansas ceased the day Bigley died. Caltrans crews returned in November to finish the work.

Crouch maintains that Caltrans workers should not be participating in these cleanups and that the state instead should hire contractors with training for the task.

He filed a grievance in April asking Caltrans to create special crews to clear homeless camps before road maintenance. The union wanted the agency 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 November, Crouch filed a complaint with Cal-OSHA’s Sacramento office, but he has not received a response.

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