SAN DIEGO — A 23-year-old woman who killed another motorist by driving the wrong way while drunk on a San Diego freeway ramp pleaded guilty Friday to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI causing injury.
Lauren Ashley Freeman is slated to be sentenced to nearly a dozen years in state prison on Sept. 27 in connection with the death of Justin Callahan, 35.
Callahan was initially found to be at fault for the Feb. 26, 2018, collision, but the CHP re-investigated the case after Callahan’s family refuted a CHP news release alleging he caused the crash. The agency later reversed its findings and Freeman was charged in early November.
The victim was driving home to the Ocean Beach area from his workplace in Chula Vista when the crash occurred just before 2 a.m. on a transition ramp between northbound Interstate 5 and westbound Interstate 8, according to the prosecution. Callahan died at the scene, while the defendant and her passenger were hospitalized with major injuries. According to the plea agreement, Freeman had a blood alcohol content of .28 at the time of the crash.
The position of the vehicles after the crash — with Callahan’s Volkswagen Jetta facing the wrong direction — led investigators to initially suspect Callahan was at fault, according to preliminary hearing testimony. In addition, the only available witness on the night of the crash told investigators that he saw Callahan’s Jetta traveling in the wrong direction.
That witness, Robert Balboa, was driving on the northbound I-5 that night and testified that he saw Freeman’s Camry pass him and merge into his lane a few car lengths ahead of him. Seconds later, he witnessed the crash, and testified that the Jetta was the one heading the wrong way.
Balboa said the passenger sides of both cars bore the impact, though photographs displayed in court showed that the impacts occurred on the driver’s side of the vehicles.
Investigators allege that the off-center impact sent the cars spinning and coming to rest in the opposite directions from which they were originally heading.
Just before 2 a.m. on Feb. 26, authorities received reports of a wrong way driver heading eastbound on Interstate 8 in the westbound lanes, but were unable to locate it at any point, CHP Officer Martin Santillan testified. The crash occurred minutes later, and emergency personnel found Callahan’s Jetta facing the wrong direction, he said.
However, cell phone data indicated that Callahan was not on Interstate 8 leading up to the crash, while data from the phones of Freeman and her passenger show they were in the area of Interstate 8, Santillan testified.
CHP Officer Brad Clinkscales testified that surveillance footage showed Callahan left the Seven Mile Casino in Chula Vista around 1:40 a.m. to drive home after a shift. The officer said that unless Callahan was driving at extremely high speeds, it was unlikely that he would have enough time to drive to Ocean Beach, then enter Interstate 8 on the incorrect exit ramp at Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, where investigators believe Freeman drove onto the freeway.
Witnesses testified that Freeman went out drinking with a friend in Hillcrest and other areas of San Diego hours before the crash.