Woman charged with murder drove wrong way on exit ramp

Courtesy Photo.

A Santee woman was ordered March 1 to stand trial for second-degree murder and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

After a 3-day preliminary hearing, San Diego Superior Court Judge Robert O’Neill held Lauren Ashley Freeman, 23, to answer for all charges in the 2018 death of Justin Callahan, 35.

“When someone drives the wrong way, it is not an accident,” said O’Neill.

Freeman is alleged to have driven the wrong way on a transition ramp between Interstate 8 and I-5 around 1:55 a.m. and collided head-on with Callahan’s Volkswagen Jetta on Feb. 26, 2018.

Initially, California Highway Patrol officers believed it was Callahan who was driving the wrong way, but a re-examination of the evidence caused the agency to reverse its findings. She was arrested Nov. 2.

Deputy District Attorney Laura Evans said Freeman was driving at a blood/alcohol level of .24, which is three times the limit for felony drunk driving.

Evans said Freeman showed “wanton disregard for life” by drinking so heavily and driving in that condition. Freeman disregarded four signs on the on-ramp that showed she was driving the wrong way, said Evans.

The prosecutor put on testimony about Freeman’s work as a server at Viejas Casino in Alpine because she received alcohol service training there.

CHP officer Brad Clinkscales testified Freeman scored 100 percent on an alcohol sales exam at Viejas. A retired San Diego Police lieutenant who taught the class at Viejas also testified.

Her attorney, Philip Shapiro, argued that his client “did not know” that she could be charged with murder in a traffic fatality.

“It does not fit the rules the legislature set up,” said Shapiro, who added that charging murder in a traffic fatality is “bending the rules.”

Freeman was also charged with driving while intoxicated and causing great bodily injury to her passenger, Renee Taddeo, of El Cajon, who suffered a broken foot, clavicle, and other injuries.

“She knew…what she was doing was dangerous,” said Evans.

She also had a boyfriend who got a DUI and lost his license, so Freeman had to drive him places, she said.

Evans also cited a text message to Freeman from her mother that said “careful with drink and drive” on her cellphone a month before the crash.

Callahan’s family, who heard all 14 witnesses in the hearing, had pushed for the CHP to re-investigate the case after initially concluding it was Callahan who drove the wrong way.

Callahan was driving to his Ocean Beach home from work after he clocked out at 1:30 a.m., his family said.

“The cars collided and split apart,” said motorist Robert Balboa. “It was pretty much head on. There was a lot of debris.”

A defense witness, Thomas Brookhouzen, said it appeared to him that Callahan’s vehicle was going the wrong way.

Freeman’s family also attended the hearing.

She has pleaded not guilty. A trial date will be set on March 14. She remains in the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility on $750,000 bail.

Man charged with shooting girlfriend to death

Bail was denied Feb. 27 for Paul Alan Paraschak, 42, who is charged with shooting his girlfriend, Melanie Benitez, 27, to death in an Alpine driveway.

Little information was said about the Feb. 23 slaying at Paraschak’s arraignment before El Cajon Superior Court Judge Robert Amador.

Paraschak pleaded not guilty.

His attorney, Anthony Parker, told the judge he would not argue for bail being set for his client, saying it was not necessary for the prosecutor to go into the facts of the slaying.

The sheriff’s department said the couple lived together in Alpine. Benitez was pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds outside a car that was parked in the 2800 block of Victoria Drive.

The homeowner told reporters she did not know the couple and did not know why their car was in her driveway.

Paraschak was arrested by sheriff’s deputies a distance away from the scene and he was in possession of two handguns.

A preliminary hearing was set for March 12.