Prosecutors allege Arroyo Grande woman intentionally caused fatal Highway 227 crash

Chelsea Stiles

Prosecutors are alleging an Arroyo Grande woman, who is charged with second-degree murder, drove while suicidal and intentionally caused a crash on Highway 227 last December that killed an elderly San Luis Obispo man. [Tribune]

During a preliminary hearing earlier this week, CHP officers testified that Chelsea Stiles admitted to being suicidal and driving into oncoming traffic on purpose. Prosecutors also allege Stiles was driving while intoxicated.

Stiles’ attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, plans to refute prosecutors theory of the crash. He said Stiles did not purposely crash into another driver.

At about 6 p.m. on Dec. 1, Stiles was traveling northbound on Highway 227 in a white GMC Yukon with her 18-month-old daughter, as well as two dogs. While driving near Cold Canyon Landfill, Stiles rammed into a car, causing it to spin out.

Following the initial collision, Stiles continued driving northbound and then swerved into the southbound lane of the highway, crashing into a Honda driven by Terry Tilton, 72. Tilton died at the scene of the crash.

Stiles and her daughter suffered moderate to major injuries.

Prosecutors charged Stiles with second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI resulting in injury, hit-and-run resulting in death or injury, willful harm to a child, animal abuse and possession of a controlled substance. Stiles also faces four counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

Stiles was previously convicted of DUI, which makes her eligible to face a murder charge in the current case. A state law requires DUI offenders to agree that if they drive under the influence again and a person dies as a result of it, they may face a second-degree murder charge.

On Monday and Tuesday, a preliminary hearing in the case took place in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Stiles arrived in court in a wheelchair with her face covered in a jail-issued cloth mask. 

Court testimony suggested, minutes prior to the crash, Stiles cut short her daughter’s scheduled visitation with the child’s father. A month prior, Stiles had ended a two-year relationship with the father.

CHP officers testified Stiles strapped her daughter in a child seat inside the SUV and drove away from the father’s South County neighborhood at a high-rate of speed. 

The father told investigators Stiles was behaving strangely and aggressively, leading him to believe she was on drugs. Also, their text message conversation caused him to fear for his daughter’s safety. 

Stiles allegedly intentionally rear-ended a Ford Pilot carrying two people, running them off the road and prompting them to call 911. Neither of the two individuals suffered serious injuries.

Witnesses reported Stiles was driving erratically down Highway 227 at approximately 70 mph. The witnesses said, just south of Patchett Road, Stiles crossed a double-yellow line into the path of a Honda Ridgeline pickup truck that Tilton was driving. 

There was plenty of time for Stiles to correct back into the northbound lane, but she did not, witnesses said. 

Stiles’ SUV crashed head-on into the Ridgeline.

Good Samaritans pulled Stiles and her child out of the vehicle. As they were doing so, one alleged victim from a rear-ended car arrived at the crash scene and asked Styles if she was the one who hit her vehicle on purpose. 

Stiles replied yes, CHP officer Brock Veilette testified. 

Veillette testified the alleged victim did not know how such a small woman could have so much rage. 

CHP officer Trevor Ashton testified Stiles was generally incoherent as she was loaded into an ambulance. At the hospital, Stiles was asked whether she intentionally crashed her SUV into either of the two vehicles she hit. Stiles said yes, Ashton said.

When asked why, Stiles said, “Let’s go. I’m ready.”

Stiles also told Ashton she had a small amount of cocaine earlier that day and had drunken some rum. A test found no alcohol in her system. An initial blood draw came back negative, but the results of a second forensic test showed recent cocaine use. 

Another CHP officer interviewed Stiles, who said her “world was recently turned upside down” and that everything in the crash happened in a whirlwind. Stiles wanted to end it all, she reportedly said in the CHP interview. 

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Judge Jacquelyn Duffy ruled enough evidence exists for the case to go to trial. Duffy also denied a request by Funke-Bilu to reduce Stiles’ bail, arguing she is a very high risk and that it was a miracle her child was not physically harmed.

However, Duffy said she would consider at a later date modifying the restraining order of the child’s father against Stiles, so the defendant can meet virtually with her daughter. 

Stiles remains in SLO County Jail, where she is being held without bail.

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