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Probation for driver in deadly Camp Meeker crash

Johnella Thomas of Marin City pleads no contest to vehicular manslaughter in emotional hearing

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 7:14 a.m.

A 74-year-old driver who struck and killed a Petaluma woman sitting in a parking lot off Bohemian Highway was sentenced to three years of probation in an emotional hearing Wednesday.

Johnella Thomas of Marin City, who earlier pleaded no contest to a single count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, also had her driver's license revoked for the three-year term and was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.

Thomas was behind the wheel of her 2010 Mercedes C300 on Feb. 24 when, according to law enforcement, she mistook the accelerator for the brake and sped off the highway north of Camp Meeker, crashing into a gazebo filled with people waiting to go on zipline tours through the redwoods.

Nola Wolf, 61, who was sitting hand-in-hand with her husband in the gazebo, was the only person hit by the car. She died at the scene, on the shared property of Sonoma Canopy Tours and the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds.

On Wednesday, Thomas addressed Nola Wolf's husband of 40 years for the first time since the accident.

"She turned around and looked at me and asked for forgiveness," said Chuck Wolf, 64.

He said he agreed with the charge brought by prosecutors and with the sentence handed down by Sonoma County Judge Peter Ottenweiller.

A harsher penalty, including jail time, "wouldn't have served any purpose," Wolf said. "She (Thomas) didn't intend to hurt anybody. No matter what comes out of the court, it doesn't change anything. I still have to live with it."

Prosecutors called the sentence "appropriate," saying it reflected Wolf's wishes, Thomas' clean driving record before the accident, her age and her willingness to take responsibility for the crash.

"It was a tragedy on both sides," Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. "You have the unbelievable loss for Mr. Wolf and an otherwise law-abiding individual who clearly acknowledged her wrongdoing early on."

While accepting her part in the accident, Thomas has nevertheless continued to deny she mistakenly pressed the accelerator, claiming a malfunction of the brakes was to blame. Ravitch and Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell, who handled the case, said the accident underscores the risks that can result from drivers whose skills have diminished as they age.

"Nobody wants to believe that they can do something that causes the loss that was sustained here," Ravitch said. She cited a series of tragedies in Sonoma County over the past month involving elderly drivers, including crashes that claimed two lives and seriously injured a 13-year-old boy.

"It is a ripe opportunity to address the issue of people who continue to drive when perhaps their faculties are less than what they used to be," Ravitch said.

Nola Wolf worked in information technology at Chevron in Richmond for 17 years and with her husband operated a Christmas tree farm for two decades on Petaluma's Liberty Road. She also was a longtime member of Sonoma County's Human Services Commission.

As part of the sentencing process, Chuck Wolf wrote a four-page letter that recalled the couple's 46-year relationship, begun when they were teenagers in southeastern Indiana.

Ravitch called the letter "heartbreaking," and Staebell said it was unlike anything he had seen in 15 years as a prosecutor.

His wife's death, Wolf said, has left a void in the home they shared, the yard they landscaped together and in the holiday season, one that Nola often celebrated by picking out a gigantic Christmas tree.

"That's what I see every time I look around," Wolf said.

He did not speak to Thomas in court Wednesday, and left soon after she addressed him. He described the moment as "intense" and not one he was prepared for.

"The whole court is listening. There are 50 people there," he said. "I was holding back."

Considering his loss, Wolf's equanimity in the case is impressive, Ravitch said. "He's a forgiving soul, and he's to be commended for that."

Wolf said he remains disappointed in Thomas' decision to get behind the wheel.

"She's still in denial about having her foot on the accelerator and not the brake," he said. "Someday maybe she'll realize that maybe she did do something wrong."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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