Some of the events of the night of Dec. 20, 2019 are not in question. Rosie Figueroa, 39, was driving her mom, Sylvia Figueroa, home from being seen at the hospital in a Toyota Camry. In what seemed like a separate universe, two young men, Tyrone Moore and Jacques Clarke, met at a party in Marina. They left the party and were driving to Sonic Burger in a Mazda 6 – and they were going fast, probably over 75mph in a 45mph zone on South Davis Road near Acacia Street in Salinas – when they rear-ended the Figueroas in front of them. The Toyota was forced off the road and into a tree, and rolled. Rosie died at the scene within minutes of the collision; her mother, who was injured, survived. Rosie also left behind a 4-year-old daughter, Camila.
California Highway Patrol officers arrived within minutes, but where their investigation starts is where the certainty ends. It left too many holes for prosecutors to believe they could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, and most importantly when it comes to delivering justice to the Figueroa family: Who was driving that night?
Among the problems: A recording device used by CHP was not working, leaving just officers’ notes as a record of initial interviews. Despite conflicting stories, officers determined early on that Clarke was driving and Moore was a passenger, so they did not conduct a sobriety test on Moore. Moore’s mother arrived and officers allowed him to talk to her privately, and he changed his story afterward – yes he had been driving Clarke’s car, then no, he hadn’t.
CHP officers suspected the men were lying – Clarke was clearly drunk – and to test the claim that Moore took over behind the wheel, asked both men to get in the driver’s seat of the Mazda (Moore, 2 inches taller, was “a little bit snug,” CHP Officer Anthony Rivera testified). That made DNA evidence collected from the car unreliable.
All of that led prosecutors to eventually drop a felony case of gross vehicular manslaughter and DUI against Clarke.
“It’s been a real difficult case for us,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon says. “It’s one that we have worked hard to try to solve.”
Brannon says prosecutors believed the CHP got it wrong and Moore was indeed the driver. “If we had proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which would have to come from the DNA, we would’ve filed [a felony case against him],” Brannon says. “There were going to be serious problems proving this because of CHP’s determination.” (CHP declined to comment.)
Prosecutors were working on strengthening the case against both Moore and Clarke. Then another tragedy struck: On March 9, 2022, Nevada Highway Patrol discovered Moore’s body on the side of State Route 163. They determined he was killed in a hit-and-run.
Meanwhile, the three-year statute of limitations was approaching. And on June 1, 2022, DA’s Office refiled the case against Clarke, but this time with lesser charges of a felony vehicle code violation for failing to help at the scene of a crash – based on the premise that he was in fact the passenger, not the driver. Clarke has entered a guilty plea and will be sentenced to felony probation. At a hearing on Dec. 7, a judge will decide whether to also sentence him to up to one year in jail.
Clarke’s attorney, Charlie Keeley, says her client has taken responsibility for his actions. She says after Clarke was released from jail, he enrolled in a 30-day residential program at Beacon House, a former alcohol treatment center, followed by an outpatient program, and has consumed no alcohol or drugs since. He started attending community college and got a job, but his life in Monterey County became untenable: “There’s been a lot of negativity toward him that’s brought him a lot of anxiety,” Keeley says.
Clarke, now 21, has relocated to the Bay Area. He settled a lawsuit filed by the Figueroa family for insurance to pay a $250,000 annuity to Camila.
Neighbors who heard the crash and went to the scene described an indifferent Clarke, “oddly calm,” according to court papers. Keeley says he was so drunk he might’ve not understood the gravity of the situation.
The gravity will weigh upon him forever – and of course it will weigh upon the Figueroas, as they forever move through grief.