HALF MOON BAY -- When Julie Schreiber woke up in a Stanford hospital bed in May she learned not only had she nearly died in a Peninsula car wreck that also killed a San Jose woman, but that police said it was her fault.
The accusation meant more pain for the 54-year-old San Gregorio woman, who had to be flown to the hospital from the scene of the Highway 1 crash with life-threatening internal injuries and broken bones. Because she works independently as a math and music teacher on the tight-knit San Mateo County coast, her reputation as a careful and responsible person is crucial.
"You have a reputation," she said. "It's not fair to be wrongly accused of something like that."
But then more than two months after the crash came the news -- as the medical bills continued to climb, reaching $1 million -- that she and her family had been waiting for. The California Highway Patrol exonerated her. The 20-year-old San Jose student killed in the crash was deemed to be at fault.
Though her name has been cleared, Schreiber faces months if not years of recovery. She's currently using a wheelchair and walker, can't work, and it's not clear how all her medical bills will get paid.
During an interview with this newspaper, Schreiber said she didn't want to discuss her feelings about the police handling of the investigation.
The life-changing events started routinely enough May 5, when Schreiber attended a Cinco de Mayo concert and dance in Redwood City. She shared a beer with a friend while there, but authorities found no alcohol in her blood after the crash. As the evening wound down, she loaded two friends into her Dodge Caravan, dropped them off in San Mateo and then headed for home on the coast.
She withdrew some cash at an ATM in Half Moon Bay and then got some gas around 11:30 or 11:45 p.m. Then her memory goes dark. Officials say Schreiber's van and a Honda Civic collided just before midnight on a straight, relatively flat section of Highway 1, which is just after the turn-off for the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay hotel.
The San Jose woman driving the Honda --20-year-old San Jose State student Kathryn "Katie" Habenicht -- was pronounced dead at the scene.
In the wake of the crash, police said it appeared Schreiber had veered into the southbound lane and head on into Habenicht. But the initial account of the crash didn't add up for Schreiber and her family.
Her father, Henry Schreiber of Grass Valley, told investigators about his daughter's ATM withdrawal in Half Moon Bay. It wouldn't make sense for her to be driving north, as police said; he believed she was heading home, which sits to the south of the town. Schreiber's father called local newspapers, alerting them the police might be wrong. Yet, the elder Schreiber said he had faith investigators would uncover the facts.
Word came in a July 18 report from the CHP that they were right. Julie Schreiber was not to blame for the crash; Kathryn Habenicht was, CHP spokesman Officer Scott Niemeth said. It remains unclear what caused Habenicht to veer from her lane. A message left for her father, Richard Habenicht, was not immediately returned.
Niemeth attributed the misplaced blame to a messy crash scene. The two vehicles were tossed like toys during the impact and that made it difficult to say who hit whom.
It's not common, but not rare, for investigators to change their conclusions once they have all the facts, he said. It happens in cases, like this one, where one driver is dead and the other can't initially speak due to major injuries and the involved vehicles are crumpled heaps.
"Your initial assumption can end up being incorrect," said Niemeth. "That's why the report is reviewed by people with 15-20 years experience in traffic collision investigation."
Schreiber is hesitant to publicly discuss the full extent of the injuries she suffered in the accident. But she said she is on the slow and painful road back to her former life, and she recently started feeling well enough to begin physical therapy.
Before the collision she was an outdoor enthusiast who spent her time running, hiking, camping and bodyboarding. Doctors believe she will walk on her own again, but whether she can resume her active life is another matter.
There's also her mountain of medical expenses and supporting herself and daughter while not being able to work. She's been using savings and borrowing from friends to pay the bills. Friends have been taking her 10-year-old daughter to the movies and the beach, trying to improve what's been a tough summer.
"I'm determined to get back to my life, but at this point I can't really say that," Schreiber said.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.
HOW TO HELP JULIE SCHREIBER
People who wish to help defray the cost of the $1 million in medical bills Julie Schreiber has racked up since a deadly May 5 crash can donate to the Julie Schreiber Recovery Fund, which is Wells Fargo account number 9298620932.