Driver who left fatal Berkeley crash in 2019 held to answer
Ana Buitrago turned herself in about 24 hours after the crash. She told police she had been in a collision but had not known what she hit.
A driver who reportedly left a fatal crash scene in Berkeley after running over a man as he crossed the street in 2019 must stand trial, a judge has ruled.
Police say Ana Buitrago, then 32, ran over 64-year-old Donald Johnson at about 10 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2019, as he walked across Adeline Street from the Black & White liquor store toward the Ashby BART station.
Instead of alerting police, Buitrago drove home in her blue Jeep Grand Cherokee, authorities have said.
A neighbor told police that two people who looked similar to Buitrago and a male housemate had sprayed off the Jeep with water early the next morning and that the housemate "seemed like he was on alert, turning his head a lot."
"She said it felt really odd," Officer Nicholas Turney testified in the March 24 hearing.
The Berkeley Scanner did not attend the brief preliminary hearing where Judge Mark McCannon made his ruling, but we have reviewed the complete transcript to write this story.
This reporter also responded to the scene of the fatal crash in 2019 and has followed this case through the court system since that time.
When Buitrago turned herself in to police about 24 hours after the crash, she confessed to having been in a collision the prior night. But she said she had not known what she hit, according to court testimony.
That changed when she read news coverage the next day about a man who had been struck and killed in the area, police said.
Buitrago ultimately was charged with a single felony count of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
She has been out of custody since the collision, which has meant the court process has moved at a glacial pace. The preliminary hearing has been rescheduled countless times over the years.
Three police officers testified during the March 24 hearing.
According to Sgt. Andres Bejarano, who was a homicide detective at the time of the crash, Buitrago told police she'd been driving home from playing tennis when she "felt something collide with her vehicle" after she went through the green light at Ashby Avenue and Adeline Street.
She told police she pulled over and looked back but did not see anything in the intersection, so she went home, Bejarano said.
After turning herself in, she gave police permission to tow her Jeep, which had "major front-end damage," Bejarano said.
Bejarano also testified that surveillance footage at the Black & White liquor store showed Johnson, an Oakland resident, shopping inside just before the crash.
The clerk at Black & White described Johnson as a frequent customer, Bejarano said.
After Johnson left the shop, the clerk heard a loud bang but did not see anything when he looked outside.
"He went back inside his store," Bejarano testified. "It wasn’t until about 15 to 20 minutes later that he realized Mr. Johnson had been hit when the police arrived."
It was Johnson's brother who first realized who the victim was, according to court testimony.
He had arrived in the area and seen what he believed was his brother's hat in the roadway.
He then called his brother's phone number, and heard the ringer coming from the area of the body, BPD traffic Officer Jason Baker testified.
The coroner's office made the official identification and determined that Johnson had died from multiple blunt-force trauma to his body.
The night of the crash, police initially had been called to the scene to investigate the discovery of an unresponsive man on the ground.
The Berkeley Fire Department pronounced him dead but it wasn't immediately clear what had happened.
Through their investigation, officers soon determined there had been a collision, in part due to the "debris field" in the street, which included a windshield wiper and other materials police later deduced had come from the Jeep.
The debris field also led police to conclude that unsafe speed had been the primary collision factor, although BPD said it was unable to determine how fast Buitrago had been going.
“The vehicle would have been traveling fast enough that pieces would have been… removed from the vehicle from the collision or from the impact," Baker said from the stand.
On cross-examination, Baker also said security footage showed Johnson entering the roadway by walking between parked cars rather than using a marked crosswalk.
At the end of the hearing, Judge McCannon said there had been sufficient evidence presented to hold Ana Buitrago to answer on the charge of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
She remains out of custody, according to court records online, and is scheduled for a procedural hearing Monday at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland.