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Living with tragedy

Christina Proctor

Christopher Oliver knew something was wrong the moment he got up in the morning. He last saw his mother the previous evening when she stopped by his work, the Tahoe Beach and Ski Club, and dropped off her purse. As he searched their residence that morning it appeared that she had never come home. Then he saw the front page of the newspaper. He stared at one headline in shock – “Pedestrian killed on the highway.”

“I read the story over and over trying to find some detail that would tell me it wasn’t her,” Christopher said.

He was alone that day, his younger brother, Joshua, was in Hawaii with friends. The brothers had lost their father two years before in the Marshall Islands, where their parents had been working as missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.



Christopher contacted the police and he was quickly brought down to the coroner’s office for the grim job of identifying his mother’s body. He was only 16 at the time.

Wanda Oliver, 49, was killed June 30, 1997, around 7:50 p.m. when she was hit by a van while walking across U.S. Highway 50 at Fairway Avenue. She was struck on the right side of her body, pulled underneath the van and dragged about 35 feet. The driver of the van, a 16-year-old girl from El Dorado Hills, was making a left-hand turn onto the highway. She told police that she was temporarily blinded by sunlight and did not see Oliver in the crosswalk.



After a police investigation, the case was forwarded to the district attorney’s office with the recommendation that prosecutors charge the driver with vehicular manslaughter, a misdemeanor. A patrol officer at the scene had confirmed the driver’s story about the angle of the sunlight, but lead investigator Detective Scott Willson said based on accident reports the driver was driving too fast for conditions and failed to yield the right-of-way.

The district attorney’s office never filed any charges against the 16-year-old driver.

“Our decision was based on the evidence, because of the circumstances of what occurred we couldn’t justify any criminal filing on it,” said Sean O’Brien, assistant district attorney.

O’Brien said his office even did further investigation of the case, but could not find justification for a criminal charge.

“The driver was making a perfectly lawful turn and the victim was making a perfectly lawful crossing of the street,” O’Brien said. “It was an accident.”

O’Brien said any other action against the driver would be an infraction and the police would have had to file it.

Although the family did quickly settle a wrongful death suit against the driver’s insurance company for around $325,000, the D.A.’s decision was still a hard blow for Wanda Oliver’s family and her three sons – especially Christopher.

“It killed when nothing was done. I saw what was done to her,” Christopher said, referring to the experience of having to identify his mother’s remains. “I went through a lot of anger. I wanted this girl prosecuted to the fullest extent. I’m the only one who wants that, but I was also the only one who saw my mother like that. It really toyed with my life.”

After Wanda’s death the boys were taken in by their grandmother and an aunt. They were moved to Kelso, Wash. – but it didn’t last very long. According to members of the family, two teen-age boys going through the shock and grief of losing both parents in such a short time proved to be too much for their grandmother to deal with. From there Christopher and Joshua moved back to South Lake Tahoe and stayed with some of their mother’s church friends for a short time. Eventually, they moved to Selma, Calif. to their uncle’s home.

Joshua, now 15, stayed with his uncle and Christopher moved back to South Tahoe. His employer from Tahoe Beach and Ski Club, Cindy Farnes, offered him his job back and a place to stay with her and her husband, Randy.

“They’ve been my friends and supporters,” Christopher said of his adopted family. “They’ve helped me through so much. I don’t know where I’d be or where I’d be in my life without them. They have been behind me 150 percent.”

Joshua said although he doesn’t wish to see the driver in jail he is disappointed in the judicial system’s handling of his mother’s case.

“Personally, I don’t think jail solves anything, but I at least think the driver should have had her license revoked until she turns 25.

“It’s been weird,” Joshua said, referring to the aftermath of his mother’s death. “I wish it was more settled.”

Wanda’s oldest son, Todd Amico, 26, lives in Gooding, Idaho, with his family. He said the lack of action by authorities has left him bewildered.

“What’s hard for me to understand is that something of this magnitude could fall between the cracks. I mean she didn’t even lose her license,” Amico said. “Now we’re all left without a mom. I never wanted to see the girl crushed because of it, but at the same time it is insulting to my mother’s memory. No amount of money is going to fix it, seeing her sit and rot in jail isn’t going to fix it. But, I would have liked to see her possibly do community service work, like maybe talking to driving classes and telling people what happened.”

Christopher said he repeatedly contacted the district attorney’s office and pushed for prosecution of his mother’s case.

“I wanted to go in and let them see how their decision has affected our lives,” Christopher said about his persistence. “In my heart and my brothers’ hearts she hasn’t been forgotten. My mother had a great love for all of us and she worked really hard. She worked hard for the things she wanted to provide us. My mother and I were really close. I made a promise to myself after my dad died. I felt I hadn’t spent enough time with him and I promised that I wouldn’t let that happen again. My parents were just plain good people.”

Christopher left South Tahoe last week for the U.S. Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill.

David DeVore, attorney for the 16-year-old driver’s family, said without taking anything away from the Oliver family’s tragedy the incident did greatly effect his client’s family as well.

“When it came to settling the civil claim they instructed me to cooperate fully,” DeVore said. “That’s not to suggest that they feel any amount of money compensates for the loss, but we were very glad to be able to help the family by settling it quickly. This accident really illustrates the difference between the civil and criminal components of our judicial system. Although this didn’t rise to the level of criminal prosecution, the civil system was in place to help the family receive some compensation.

“I know my clients to this day are terribly impacted by the Oliver family’s loss and what her sons are going through,” DeVore said. “I don’t think it’s something that will ever be put behind them. It is something that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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