The chaos following a fatal fight on a party bus last weekend on Highway 17 has turned the investigation into what authorities declare will be a long-term, painstaking inquiry that so far offers plenty of puzzling questions, but very few answers.
On Wednesday the California Highway Patrol said officers have interviewed the owner of the party bus company and some of the passengers -- all of whom were drunk. Meanwhile, the family of the 25-year-old woman who died beneath the wheels of the bus following a fight has refused to answer any media inquiries.
"It's just going to take a long time," Officer D.J. Sarabia said in a telephone interview five days after a 25-year-old Santa Cruz woman fell out of the bus to her death.
A central problem, Sarabia explained, is that everyone on board the party bus -- except the driver -- was intoxicated. Further, the officers who responded to the incident late Friday night encountered a bizarre, dangerous scene: drunken passengers on the side of the busy and narrow highway. And still another complication: authorities believe some of the passengers fled the scene before police arrived because they were minors and feared getting caught.
The CHP spokesman said investigators were still collecting basic information, including how many passengers were on board and how many were underage drinkers. He did not know if investigators have completed interview of all of the passengers they managed to find.
According to the CHP, two young women were fighting near a door on the bus when they tumbled out of the moving vehicle, traveling about 45 mph on Highway 17 in Los Gatos. One of the women, Natasha Noland, was killed beneath the wheels of the bus. Investigators are still looking into how the bus door opened.
The bus was returning from a concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Two men, including Noland's boyfriend, were arrested at the scene on minor charges. Sarabia said the CHP won't identify the bus driver or the other woman in the fight, a 20-year-old from Felton, because the investigation may lead to criminal charges.
"We're just not sure where the case develops," Sarabia said.
Noland's death has thrown a critical spotlight on party buses in California, which operate under looser rules than limousine services. For example, party bus owners and drivers do not assume responsibility for their passengers. State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has proposed a new law to bring the party buses into line.
Sarabia said investigators have interviewed the bus company owner, Jon Reno St. James, who has turned away news media requests for interviews. An online address for his company, Party Bus Santa Cruz, led to a small, dusty lot on Portola Drive where a few party buses were parked this week.
Questions, no answers
Party buses typically are rented by third parties, including organizations and individuals, event promoters and social clubs. Sarabia did not know if that was the case with the fatal bus ride or if CHP investigators had found and interviewed the renter. Under state law, party bus management is supposed to keep lists of all passengers and renters.
Also, it remains unclear who was responsible for the passengers or for preventing minors from drinking alcohol on board.
There are more unanswered questions. Where did the bus pick up the passengers? Where was it going to return them? How would any still-intoxicated passengers get home from the drop-off location?
Meanwhile, little is known about the victim. A graduate of Santa Cruz High School, Natasha Noland worked as a buyer at her family's surf shop. Co-workers and one friend described Noland on Saturday as a friendly, generous person with a "good soul."
The Noland family apparently is not giving interviews. Outside their spacious house in a secluded alcove in the Santa Cruz hills, two young women on Tuesday afternoon turned away reporters. Business had returned as usual at the bustling surf shop, but employees rebuffed all interview requests.
Sarabia said figuring out exactly what happened on the bus and who was responsible or at fault won't be easy.
"That's what they're working on." Sarabia said, referring to the process of solving the many unanswered questions.