Truck driver struck and killed Santa Monica homeless advocate near Crescent Bay Park

By Beige Luciano-Adams

Janet Kathleen Watson Lilliott died at the scene

A subcontractor for the city of Santa Monica was found guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter this week, more than two years after he struck and killed a 62-year-old pedestrian with his truck while backing up across a walkway near Crescent Bay Park.

Janet Kathleen Watson Lilliott, a dedicated volunteer for local homeless services nonprofit West Coast Care, died at the scene on Aug. 22, 2014.

Truck driver Luis Gonzales and city Park Operations Supervisor Miguel Ramos faced trial together at the Airport Courthouse in Westchester. A jury found Gonzales guilty with ordinary negligence (a lesser degree than gross negligence), but Ramos was found not guilty.

“I think that it was fairly clear as far as operation of the vehicle that the driver was negligent and caused the victim’s death,” said Santa Monica Chief Deputy City Attorney Terry White, who heads up the office’s criminal division.

The city’s theory on Ramos was that as a supervisor he was responsible for maintenance of the truck, which records show was maintained poorly. But the issue turned out to be more complex, White said.

“I know the jury took some time trying to decide based on testimony of the mechanic who serviced the vehicle and whether or not this was actually a garbage truck, because that was a big issue in the pretrial legal arguments,” White said.

Gonzales worked for city subcontractor TruGreen doing landscaping and garbage collection. He was out collecting trash when he struck Lilliott at about 11 miles per hour

According to White, that turned out to be the crux of issue: What can be classified as a trash truck, and does a trash truck require a backup alarm?

Sentencing for Gonzales is set for April 5. The misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum of one year in county jail.

Defense attorney Gilbert Rodriguez declined a request for comment.

Lilliot’s sister, Nancy Watson, spoke about struggling through the slow-moving justice system but wanting to see the case through court. She hopes to continue her sister’s legacy of altruism and expects Lilliott would have forgiven Gonzales.

“So I don’t feel any anger toward him, no strong feeling that I want him convicted. But at the same time, I think he should be held accountable, and the supervisor,” Watson said last week. “It’s hard to go through it all two-and-a-half years afterward, bringing it all back again. … It’s tough not to have her around anymore. I just feel like I had to come, to show that she was loved.”

After the verdict came down on Monday, Watson said she personally felt Gonzales had behaved with gross negligence, which involves a conscious disregard for exercising reasonable care.

“He knew he had a three-foot blindspot in back of his truck, knew there was no back-up alarm, knew there were pedestrians using the walkway at lunchtime, knew he couldn’t hear anything over his blaring radio, knew the warning light and the horn were not working, yet he still backed up without making sure no one was behind him,” she said. “He could have used cones, he could have asked someone to guide him — he could have done so many things to prevent causing my sister’s death.”

On the other hand, Watson added, “I’m sure that he and his family are suffering, and I am sorry for that.”

Watson described Lilliott as a tireless advocate for the homeless who combined fearlessness with compassion: “I think it’s a very unusual person who works with the homeless, because it’s not an easy population. There is a lot of mental illness. But she just would listen to people. She won the confidence of a lot of people.”

Watson recently got her church to join the Westside Coalition, a Santa Monica-based network of groups addressing local poverty, and she has been participating in service events.

“I’m trying to carry on some of what my sister started,” she said.