By Jennifer Erickson and Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
More than seven months after an early morning collision on Laguna Canyon Road claimed the lives of two men, the Orange County District Attorney’s office last week criminally charged Laguna Beach resident and physician Robert McFarland Pettis, 48, with three felonies stemming from the accident.
At a court hearing on Monday, Nov. 18, the court continued his arraignment, now set for Dec. 19, at the request of Pettis’ attorney, Irvine’s Paul S. Meyer. Bail was set at $100,000 and was posted, court records show. Deputy District Attorney Anna McIntire, of the homicide unit, is prosecuting the case.
Meyer did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Pettis, driving his Tesla Model S northbound on Laguna Canyon Road on April 2, is accused of speeding and crossing the double yellow lines and driving into oncoming traffic in the southbound lanes, according to the statement released by the district attorney’s office on Friday, which followed the months-long investigation.
Pettis crashed head on into a Honda Accord at about 6:40 a.m., killing 47-year-old driver Alberto Casique-Salinas, of Anaheim, and his friend and passenger, 38-year-old Armando Gonzalez of Santa Ana. If convicted, Pettis faces a maximum sentence of nine years and eight months in state prison.
His arrest alone will now trigger a review of his license and could result in suspension if he is considered a danger to his patients, said Cassandra Hochenson, a spokeswoman for the state Medical Board. No public disciplinary actions have been filed against Pettis since he was licensed in 2001, she said.
At the time of the accident, the police log noted that the Tesla’s driver, who was not identified at the time, informed police another vehicle, a white Mercedes, had pushed him into oncoming traffic. The second driver, who was also not identified, was eventually questioned by police but ultimately wasn’t charged. “We could only support charges against the defendant,” Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said this week.
“I’m in the dark as to why the second driver wasn’t charged,” said Laguna Hills lawyer Gary L. Moorhead, retained by Gonzalez’ widow. Now that charges have been filed, he expects to soon obtain the results of the police investigation and witness statements from the accident and make a decision on whether to pursue civil charges against Pettis or possibly others.
Tigran Martinian, a Los Angeles attorney hired by the Salinas family, declined to comment.
Last month, Laguna Beach’s City Council rejected claims filed on behalf of the survivors of the double-fatality. The claim, a precursor to protect a plaintiff’s ability to file a civil lawsuit, alleges that the neglect, design and maintenance of Laguna Canyon Road near El Toro Road played a role in the wrongful deaths. A staff report noted that the portion of the roadway in question is owned and controlled by Caltrans.
Without the results of the inquiry, Moorhead said it was too early to determine if road design or a partially covered merge sign contributed to the accident.
A speed race is also suspected as a contributing factor. Apparently, Pettis was en route to surgery on the day of the collision, according to a source familiar with the investigation. Doctors are exempted from many speeding laws when traveling to an emergency, points out a newsletter on the medical board’s website, citing a vehicle code.
Pettis was charged with two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, one felony count of driving the wrong way on a divided highway causing death, and sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily harm, court records show.
Dr. Pettis, who specializes in hearing and balance disorders, has been in private practice in Laguna Beach since 2006, according to his office’s website. He was motivated to become a physician because of a personal hearing loss, the site says. “He takes this minimally less is more approach,” said patient and former allergy sufferer Dean Gould, of Manhattan Beach, who experienced relief from chronic symptoms after a 20-minute procedure with Pettis rather than surgery recommended by another doctor.
Both of the collision victims worked for Laguna Beach’s Stewart’s Landscaping. Owner Liza Stewart said the crash and its aftermath “has been very hard on all involved, but not as much as the victims’ families. I can’t imagine what they have been going through,” she said. “Their lives have been changed forever; just thinking about it brings me to tears, still to this day.”