Family and advocates seek justice after homeless woman run over in lawnmower incident in California park

27-year-old Christine Chavez was found dead after a private landscaper cleared recently acquired park

Alex Woodward
Saturday 15 July 2023 19:04 BST
Homeless woman killed by lawn mower at public park

Police in Modesto, California are investigating the death of a 27-year-old woman whose body was discovered after a landscaping contractor hired to clear grass in a park had passed through the area with a lawnmower tractor.

A landscaper at Beard Brook Park found the body of Christine Chavez on 8 July after cutting through grass with a pull-behind mower connected to a John Deere tractor, according to the Modesto Police Department.

Chavez was experiencing homelessness and would often sleep in the park during the daytime when it was safest, according to her family and homeless advocacy groups who are seeking answers in the wake of her death.

The 12-acre Break Brook Park was recently acquired by neighboring E&J Gallo Winery, which moved ownership of the park from a public space to private land. That transfer was completed one day before Chavez was found.

The park also was once an authorised camping site for people experiencing homelessness in the area.

There, Chavez’s family members said authorities have continued to collect human remains and clothing in the aftermath of her death.

“My mom had to pick up pieces of her. That’s not correct,” her brother Randy Chavez told The Modesto Bee newspaper. “We want ordinances to change so it doesn’t happen again. Regardless if they are homeless they are still people and should be treated the same as any other people.”

A GoFundMe for Chavez, who is also the mother of a nine-year-old child, has also been established to support legal efforts.

A spokesperson for Gallo said that a landscaping contractor was hired to perform “weed abatement and fire prevention services” the day after the ownership transfer.

“There was an accident at approximately [noon] involving the contractor’s tractor and an individual who was not visible and laying in a tall, weeded area,” according to the statement. “The contractor immediately contacted the Modesto Police Department via 911, and upon arrival, MPD Officers declared the individual was deceased.”

The company and the landscaper “are fully cooperating with law enforcement authorities on this situation,” according to the statement. “Gallo expresses its sincere condolences to the family of the victim.”

A statement from Grover Landscape Services said the landscaper was driving through “a dry, overgrown area” when he discovered Chavez’s remains.

“Out of respect for the on-going investigation, we cannot speculate as to the cause of or circumstances surrounding her death,” the statement said. “We are deeply saddened by these events. Our hearts and sympathies go out to her friends and family. Grover is providing counseling services to the operator due to this traumatic experience.”

Chavez’s death is the second within recent years involving crews cleaning out areas where homeless people in Modesto have resided.

In August 2018, a Caltrans employee clearing an encampment crushed 32-year-old Shannon Bigley to death with heavy machinery while she was sleeping.

Mortality rates are 3.5 times higher among people experiencing homelessness, according to a study from the University of Chicago.

“We have to stay up all night because it’s dangerous to sleep at night. You might be raped, stabbed, murdered,” Dez Martinez, CEO & founder of Fresno-based advocacy group We Are Not Invisible told a local ABC News affiliate. “When the daytime comes, it’s time to go to sleep, it’s broad daylight, there’s a lot of traffic, a lot of people, what’s going to happen to me?”

Ms Martinez has urged officials to “immediately” create a safe camping site “for people who want care, who want help,” she told The Modesto Bee. “What if she had a safe camp to go to? Would she have to lay down right there to sleep?”

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