BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — When Bakersfield police Officer Chad Ott arrived at the suspect’s southwest Bakersfield home, he possessed a body of knowledge accumulated from nine months of investigation.
Ott knew the details of the fatal hit-and-run crash inside and out. He was prepared to immediately counter any lies.
So when Stephanie Heninger claimed she never drove the Nissan Sentra investigators say caused a deadly crash on Stockdale Highway, Ott knew the statement was “obviously a lie,” according to court documents. His research showed she regularly drove the vehicle.
More lies followed, Ott says in the documents. He told her he didn’t buy her story.
He demanded the truth.
Heninger, 42, began crying. Then she admitted she was behind the wheel of the Sentra for which police had been searching for nine months, the documents say.
“It happened so fast,” she told Ott of the crash.
Ott placed her in handcuffs and booked her into the downtown jail, where she remains on more than $100,000 bail after pleading not guilty to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and two hit-and-run charges. Her next court hearing is set for July 12.
What finally broke the case?
A small white decal, of all things, spotted in surveillance video on the suspect vehicle’s windshield.
Deadly crash on Stockdale Highway
It was the afternoon of July 22 when the Sentra clipped another vehicle while changing lanes on Stockdale Highway near Don Hart Drive East, setting off a chain of events that eventually involved four vehicles — and killed a woman.
Based on surveillance video and witness statements, the crash happened as follows:
A Sentra traveling west changed from the slow lane of Stockdale Highway to the middle lane. It clipped the passenger side of a vehicle traveling 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.
The vehicle the Sentra clipped braked and swerved left, clipping a third vehicle traveling 70 mph. The third vehicle braked and swerved excessively to the left. The driver lost control and the vehicle became airborne as it crossed the center media into oncoming traffic.
It landed on a fourth vehicle that was traveling east in the fast lane.
The driver of the eastbound vehicle, Deborah Ann Geneau, 65, was killed.
Alexander Acosta-Alvarenga, 19, the driver of the vehicle clipped by the Sentra, told police the Sentra initially stopped. He said he got out of his car and asked the Sentra’s driver if she was OK.
The driver didn’t respond, Acosta-Alvarenga said, and he went to check on the driver in the third vehicle. The Sentra remained at the scene for between 10 to 30 seconds before leaving, he said.
The driver of the third vehicle, Tahir Mandvi, 21, said he wasn’t sure of anything except that a white vehicle hit him and he “blacked out,” the documents say.
Searching for the suspect
Police obtained surveillance video from multiple businesses in the area. They got video from a Burger King, BBVA Bank, Golden Empire Transit, Finish Line Bike Shop and a red light camera at Stockdale Highway and Coffee Road.
The quality of the videos varied, but investigators found footage showing the Sentra.
Every witness who called 911 when the crash occurred was contacted and interviewed. Police followed up on almost 100 tips from the public. They looked into possible suspect vehicles.
They didn’t find a suspect.
But Ott continued to focus on the white decal, the significance of which he didn’t understand. He looked for similar decals as he drove around, according to the documents.
Finally, he spotted one — it was a warning related to Proposition 65, which requires businesses to provide warnings about exposure to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.
The vehicle’s occupant told Ott they bought the vehicle at CarMax.
On Oct. 7, Ott found another vehicle with the same decal in the same position. That vehicle’s owner also said they purchased their vehicle at CarMax.
Ott called CarMax and emailed a photo of the decal to an employee. The employee confirmed the decal was specific to CarMax and they place it on all vehicles they sell.
At last, a usable lead.
The investigation continues
A search warrant was served on CarMax for sales records of 2013-2019 gray or silver Nissan Sentras, according to the filings. Ott received the records a couple weeks later.
Ott also wrote a search warrant for data from Google seeking a list of cellphones and other electronic devices using its services in the vicinity of the crash within a 10-minute period. He received data showing 59 devices in that area at the time of the crash, and Google said he would have to narrow that list to 15 before it provided further help, according to the documents.
Using video obtained from the Redflex and GET cameras, which Ott said in the documents have very accurate time stamps, the officer created a map of the suspect vehicle’s travel using Google Earth aerial imagery. Matching the path of travel to the location of the devices, he narrowed the list to 15.
Google then provided more detailed location and time data for the those devices. Out of that data, Ott found only one device that corresponded to the path the suspect vehicle took, the filings say.
Ott made another request, and on April 26 Google provided him with identifying information for that device.
The subscriber was Heninger, the filings say.
Now in possession of a name, Ott performed a records check and, using the list he received from CarMax, found Heninger bought a 2016 gray Nissan Sentra about a month before the crash, according to the documents.
Reviewing Bakersfield Police Department records, Ott found several calls involving Heninger and the Nissan. The last entry for the vehicle showed it had been repossessed and towed from CarMax’s lot March 3. Ott learned it was being transported to Los Angeles to be sold at auction.
Ott contacted the auction company, explained the situation and drove to Mira Loma to examine the Sentra, the filings say. He found the Prop 65 decal on the windshield and minor damage to the front driver side fender.
He towed the vehicle to the BPD’s long term storage lot and conducted a thorough examination, according to the documents. Although slight, the damage appeared consistent with what the vehicle would have sustained in the crash.
It was time to contact Heninger.
Once she admitted to being the driver, Heninger made excuses for not turning herself in, the documents say.
She told Ott she never contacted police about the crash and said she didn’t know it was required by law to report any collision. She claimed she had no idea police were looking for her and never saw media coverage of the case.
Heninger said she didn’t check on the condition of anyone else involved in the crash, the documents say.
Ott asked what she would say to Geneau’s family about her failure to come forward.
“I’ll go to work and pay fines,” Heninger replied.
She admitted to using drugs, most recently a month earlier, according to the documents. She said she smokes methamphetamine.
In addition to the hit-and-run case, Heninger has an upcoming hearing on a misdemeanor spousal abuse charge, court records show.