The Yuba County District Attorney is contemplating felony charges of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence causing injury and hit and run in connection with the death of a Tahoe Hotshot firefighter in November 2013.
Law enforcement investigators say Andrew Grueneberg was driving a vehicle overloaded with fellow firefighters after a long night of alcohol-fueled celebration when they ran over another member of their Camptonville-based crew, who was inexplicably laying prone in the roadway.
Michael “Mike” P. Kelly, a native of Meridian, Idaho, suffered major blunt-force trauma to the head and torso and was pronounced dead at the scene, just west of Old Toll Road on Marysville Road. Kelly was 32.
Yuba County District Attorney Pat McGrath said his office has yet to make a final determination on which — if any — of the charges being contemplated will be filed against Grueneberg.
“You can expect a decision either next week or the week after,” McGrath said.
California Highway Patrol spokesman Greg Tassone said his office recommended the DA pursue charges against Grueneberg.
“We believe the charges were warranted,” Tassone said.
The incident occurred at 1:10 a.m. on Nov. 17 when Grueneberg and six other members of an elite Hotshots crew were returning from an establishment that serves alcoholic beverages, heading toward their barracks near Bullards Bar Reservoir.
An unrelated vehicle was traveling eastbound toward Grueneberg when that driver reportedly observed a pedestrian, who was later identified as Kelly, laying down in the westbound (opposite) lane of the roadway.
The witness came to a stop and, observing Grueneberg’s vehicle approaching the prone person, engaged his high beams repeatedly in an effort to warn the driver of the hazard in the roadway.
The warning proved unsuccessful.
Grueneberg later told investigators that he believed he had run over an animal in the roadway and continued on toward his destination. A passenger in Grueneberg’s vehicle called 911 to report the hazard and subsequent collision and after the group arrived at the barracks, two other passengers got into another vehicle and returned to the scene.
“Some of the involved parties were not cooperative up front,” Tassone said. “But we tracked them down and they have since become cooperative.”
How Kelly came to be in the middle of the roadway at such an early morning hour remains one of the mysteries of the incident.
“There are questions in this case that we will probably never have answered,” McGrath said.
At some point earlier during the party, which was being held in honor of the end of the fire season — meaning members of the very tight firefighting crew would disperse to their various hometowns or places of residence throughout California and the American West — Kelly indicated a desire to go back to the barracks, McGrath said.
He secured a ride with an individual, who subsequently became distracted with events at the party. Kelly decided to walk the more than five miles back to the barracks.
“These guys were in amazing shape,” McGrath said, adding it is not uncommon for a person of their athletic prowess to hike that far on a whim.
In the summer of 2013, Outside Magazine ran a profile of the Tahoe Hotshots based in Camptonville, with Grueneberg, Kelly and other members of the crew featured heavily in the article by Kyle Dickman, who was embedded with the crew for the entire 2012 fire season.
The article depicts the crew as diligent, courageous, loyal and attacking the job that they love with a strong strain of camaraderie.
The other aspect that emerges from the piece is that frequent, heavy binge drinking sessions occur when the crew is not off working to quell large wildland blazes.
“He had a drinking problem and hotshots can be pretty good enablers,” Dickman wrote at one point in the article. “They’re huddled beneath the awning, watching the rain fall, nursing hangovers from the previous night’s trip to the Mine Shaft,” he writes further down.
The article ends with a group of the Tahoe Hotshots in a Truckee bar, clinking glasses filled with cheap beer and whiskey.