James Eugene Hunt, 54, charged with felonies for suspected involvement in Dec. 18 crash
You’ve heard all the cliches. Life is precious. Life is fleeting. Life can turn on a dime.
While we all give a passing nod to our own mortality, it’s nothing more than that – a passing nod.
Until, perhaps, the front end of the one ton pickup we’re driving sails clear over a guard rail at 65 m.p.h.
“I thought that was it,” said Chip Baviera, of the accident that nearly took his life on December 18, 2012.
Baviera had been driving up the grade from Bishop that evening. It was dark, about 5:30 p.m. Baviera was about a mile south of the Caltrans sand shed, a few miles north of the Mono County line.
Without warning, something slammed into the driver’s side door of Baviera’s Dodge, sending his vehicle over the guard rail. The pickup then flipped several times before miraculously, landing on its wheels in a ravine some 100 feet below the highway.
According to the California Highway Patrol report, Baviera’s vehicle sustained “major rollover damage to its roof, windshield, hood, front bumper, grill, both headlights, all four quarter panels, all doors …” The lumber rack was detached and lying nearby.
Baviera said he hoisted himself on his stomach onto the broken window ledge of his driver’s side window, but there was still jagged glass and there was a lot of blood in his eyes so he couldn’t really see anything and he didn’t know how far it was down to the ground if he decided to tumble out the window.
Instead, he chose to try to kick the damaged door out far enough so he could slide out. He estimated he kicked the door several dozen times until he could free himself.
“I knew I was hypothermic and liable to go into shock,” he recalled.
Severely concussed and unable to see very well, he wandered in the wrong direction for a few minutes before he got his bearings and hiked his way out to the highway.
There, he flagged down a vehicle being driven by Ariel Wilbur (who ironically later served as Baviera’s physical therapist). An ambulance arrived on scene moments later.
According to the CHP report, a Caltrans employee driving a snowplow north of the collision scene had called 911 soon after the accident when he observed “a dark-colored, square truck or older model SUV facing northeast in the center divider closest to the northbound lanes of traffic.” The witness observed the vehicle’s headlights “turn from on to off and then on again. The vehicle backed up, was driven back into the northbound lanes of traffic and continued north.”
The responding CHP officer, Gardea, was surprised by the unusual angle of impact. On a highway, how does someone get hit relatively square in the driver’s side at 65 m.p.h.? It didn’t seem plausible. Baviera told Gardea that whomever had hit him did not have their headlights on at the time of the collision. He had not known there was someone coming up from behind until impact.
The next day, an employee from Mr. K’s Automotive in Bishop called CHP. While doing clean up at the accident scene, the employee collected the rear tail light assembly of the vehicle that had smashed into Baviera.
CHP was able to trace back the make and model of the hit-and-run vehicle based on the dislodged part.
Further investigation revealed that James Eugene Hunt, nicknamed “Red,” longtime employee of Grumpy’s Sports Restaurant in Mammoth Lakes, owned a vehicle matching the description. He had also been observed drinking at the bowling alley in Bishop that afternoon. Further, witnesses stated they had tried to confiscate Red’s keys on several occasions, but Red had refused to hand them over.
A search of Red’s vehicle “revealed a receipt from Taco Bell … time stamped 4:45 p.m.,” stated the report
In an initial interview, Red denied to law enforcement that he had been drinking or had been involved in an accident. He then added that he might have struck a guard rail on the way home and that he remembers waking up the next day shocked to see the damage to his vehicle.
In a follow-up interview, when informed of some of the evidence police had obtained, Red “related he must have done all these things because he was unable to remember anything,” stated the report.
When police impounded Red’s vehicle for evidence, “the vehicle was missing the right tail assembly, the left rear hubcap and had white paint transfer on its right front door (Baviera’s truck was white).
On February 19, Red was charged with Felony DUI causing injury (with enhancements), and Felony Hit and Run Causing Injury (with enhancements).
As for Baviera, it was originally believed that he had merely suffered a severe whiplash injury that could be corrected with physical therapy, but Baviera found that over the course of six P.T. sessions, things were getting worse, not better. An MRI ordered by Dr. Peter Clark confirmed that Baviera needed to see a spinal specialist.
He had surgery three weeks ago at Cedar Sinai, where surgeons removed four disks from his neck and fused the numbers 3 through 7 vertebrates.
While he is eager to return to work, Baviera is 58 and acknowledges that he has a long road to recovery ahead. He also knows that the spinal injuries could potentially impact his ability to work, as he is a diesel mechanic, which requires heavy lifting overhead and sometimes awkward positioning.
Of the accident, Baviera had this ironic observation. “I left work fifteen minutes early that day from Brett’s Diesel [in Bishop]. If I hadn’t been there, he would’ve gone over the guard rail himself. I kept him on the road. I saved his life.”
“The upsetting part was that he left me there [instead],” said Baviera
The next pre-trial conference is scheduled for April 8 in Mono County Superior Court.