Woman who hit bus, house faces 2 counts

A Ceres woman who appeared to be hallucinating shortly after she caused a wreck that sent a school bus crashing through the bedroom of a Turlock home must stand trial on charges of drunken driving and possession of cocaine, a judge said Tuesday.

Judge Donald Shaver's ruling came at the close of a preliminary hearing that stretched over two days in Stanislaus County Superior Court, after an officer described the strange behavior he encountered when he tried to get Tiffany Lafollette to answer questions or take a field sobriety test.

California Highway Patrol officer Richard Kennell told the court that Lafollette was strapped to a gurney and inside an ambulance when he first met her. She was screaming for a son who was not there, he said, and struggling to get free of restraints that paramedics used so they could treat her injuries.

The officer met Lafollette again at Emanuel Medical Center, where a sample of her blood was taken as she was treated for head injuries. Kennell said he tried to talk to Lafollette off and on over the course of 90 minutes, but made little headway.

"At some points she would scream. Sometimes she was lethargic, but while she was yelling and screaming she would ask for her son," Kennell said. "It was difficult to get answers from her."

2 students taken to the hospital

Lafollette, 35, was behind the wheel shortly after 7 a.m. Jan. 29 when, according to investigators, her white Dodge Durango slammed into the front end of a school bus that was carrying about 20 students headed to Turlock Junior High School.

The bus hit a stop sign, ran over a fire hydrant and slammed into a home in the 2200 block of Castleview Drive, coming to rest inside a child's bedroom.

Two students were taken to the hospital and treated for minor injuries, then released. Others had bumps and bruises.

Investigators found cocaine in the sport utility vehicle's glove box and pills in a side pocket.

School bus driver John Gray told the court that he was heading west on Castleview Drive when he stopped at a stop sign at Quincy Road.

He said he saw Lafollette's SUV going south through an intersection at Quincy Road and Tuolumne Avenue, about 800 feet away, but thought he had enough time to cross the road.

The bus driver estimated that he was going 3 or 4 mph when he heard the SUV's engine revving, followed by the sound of its brakes locking. He said he veered to the left, to give the SUV room to pass, but could not get the bus out of the way.

"That bus is over 33,000 pounds," Gray said. "It does not stop on a dime."

Kennell said a witness who was standing on Quincy Road estimated the SUV was going 50 to 60 mph as it approached the intersection.

The posted speed limit is 35 mph.

The California Department of Justice crime lab determined that Lafollette had two antidepressants, Alprazolam and Ci- talopram, in her system at the time of the crash. Those medications are known to cause drowsiness and dizziness.

Attorney asks for misdemeanor

Deputy Public Defender Nancy Smith argued that the drunken driving charge should be reduced to a misdemeanor, because authorities were not able to determine the amount of pills Lafollette had taken and the injuries to the children were so minor that none required follow-up care.

Deputy District Attorney Nate Baker argued that Lafollette, who admitted to taking pills, did not need to cause great bodily injury to be charged with felony driving under the influence.

"She was approaching this intersection with this huge bus," he said. "She was so inattentive she didn't even see the bus until the last second, when she slammed on the brakes."

The judge said the evidence of intoxication from pills was circumstantial but enough to let a jury make the final call. Lafollette is free on $30,000 bail and is scheduled to return to court Oct. 2. She has pleaded not guilty to both felonies.

Last month, Lafollette resolved three cases involving petty theft from Mervyn's department store, failing to stop at the scene of an injury accident and misdemeanor drunken driving, according to court records. She was given concurrent sentences of 60 days, 30 days and 2 days.

The judge noted that Lafollette also had a prior drunken driving conviction on her record at the time of the bus crash.

"It's very difficult to understand how you could hit something as big as a bus by being inattentive," Shaver said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.