Guilty plea: Christopher Blankenship sentenced to probation in SPPD Kimberly Hemminger’s death

May 15, 2013
Santa Paula News

A former volunteer reserve officer who was drunk while at the wheel of a Jeep that overturned and killed an SPPD officer on a remote South Mountain area road was sentenced Friday.

The prosecutor in the case recommended that Christopher Blankenship, 45, of Santa Paula, be sentenced to four years in a state prison on the felony vehicular manslaughter charge. Instead Superior Court Judge Patricia Murphy suspended a two-year state prison sentence, but still could sentence Blankenship to one year in county jail when she considers a recommended probation report to be submitted to the court Thursday.

Prosecutor Michael Lief had recommended that Blankenship receive the maximum sentence for the death of SPPD Officer Kimberley Hemminger, 33, of Oxnard, for the July 22, 2012 off-duty crash. Hemminger and Blankenship had reportedly been dating for about a year.

Hemminger, a five-year veteran of the SPPD, was a passenger in the Jeep that Blankenship was driving at about 9:15 p.m. on a remote private road.

According to the California Highway Patrol, Blankenship apparently couldn’t negotiate a right-hand curve and lost control of the vehicle on South Mountain Lookout Road near Coyote Canyon Road. The vehicle spun out and rolled over, pinning the partially ejected Hemminger - who was not wearing a seatbelt - and killing her. An autopsy showed Hemminger died from blunt-force neck injuries.

It took almost an hour for emergency personnel - including Santa Paula Fire and Police personnel - to locate the vehicle in the mountainside area cut with steep, windy roads and no lights except for the communication towers and oil drilling rigs near and at the top of the mountain. A Ventura County Sheriff’s helicopter was also dispatched to aid in the search that included the CHP and other agencies.

Blankenship, a volunteer reserve officer for about 15 years, resigned from the SPPD the morning following the crash after he was released from jail on $50,000 bail. Blankenship pleaded guilty in March to vehicle manslaughter while intoxicated, and admitted causing great bodily injury and using a deadly weapon, the vehicle, to commit the crime. 

At the sentencing hearing Hemminger’s mother, Sharon - who was so close to her only daughter that Kimberly had purchased the house next door - and a cousin gave victim impact statements, noting their loss and grief and the devastating impact her death had on the family. A large photo of Hemminger and her horse, Scooby, Hemminger’s partner in the Ventura County Sheriff’s and SPPD mounted patrols, was displayed in the court during the sentencing.

Judge Murphy noted the crash had been an off-duty incident and that she does not believe police officers should be held to a higher standard than others for such charges. The probation department’s initial report prepared for the sentencing had recommended prison time, but did not specify the length of incarceration.

Prosecutor Michael Lief told the court that Blankenship had initially tried to use knowledge he gained from law enforcement experience to claim he was drinking beer right after the crash, a claim disputed by witnesses who had also been in the area. 

Blankenship’s lawyer, Jay Leiderman, told the judge his client should receive probation based on Blankenship’s lack of criminal record and his service as a SPPD reserve officer. Blankenship, described by his lawyer as a good person, has deep remorse and has quit drinking, just one factor - the others were a rough road and the lack of seatbelts - that Leiderman said led to Hemminger’s death. Leiderman also noted that Blankenship’s friends, including police officers, were in court to show their support of him.

On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at the Santa Paula Police Officers Memorial for a 5K Run dedicated to and benefiting the families of Hemminger and Reserve Officer Dave Bartlett, killed in an off-duty traffic accident that occurred February 2012.

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