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A Marin City woman whose car struck an killed a Petaluma woman in a gazebo at the Alliance of the Redwoods Conference Grounds in February was sentenced Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court to three years probation. Johnella Thomas, 74, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and was immediately sentenced to the probationary term.
Nola Wolf, 61, was holding hands with her husband Charles while they waited inside a gazebo to ride a zip line operated by Sonoma Canopy Tours at the Camp Meeker conference grounds where the Wolfs were celebrating Nora’s sister’s birthday on Feb. 24. Thomas was driving a 2010 Mercedes around 1:30 p.m. north on two-lane Bohemian Highway to visit the conference grounds when she mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.
The Mercedes was going 65 mph when it left the road and plowed into the gazebo in the parking lot of the conference grounds and struck Wolf, who died instantly, Ravitch said. Thomas had never received a traffic ticket and was driving about 35 mph when the Mercedes suddenly accelerated, Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said. Thomas and a passenger in her car suffered minor injuries.
Thomas apologized to Charles Wolf in court, and Wolf told the judge he preferred Thomas perform community service rather than spend time in jail, Ravitch said. That could include advising seniors about the dangers of driving in their later years, Ravitch said. Judge Peter Ottenweller ordered 300 hours of community service, ordered Thomas to speak twice before the congregation of her church, and ordered her driver’s license revoked for three years.
There have been several incidents in Sonoma County this year involving motorists or pedestrians who were killed or injured by elderly drivers. “We see this as a problem in the community. It’s difficult to surrender the keys,” Staebell said. Ravitch said Wolf’s loss and Thomas’ apology for the death “are tragic reminders of the dangers of driving beyond one’s capacity in senior years.” “We hope this case will cause those who should no longer be driving to reflect and choose to find alternative transportation and assistance in the community to make this transition, for everyone’s safety,” Ravitch said.
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