Car chase proves fatal for local woman

A woman with ties to Gilroy and San Benito County dies in high speed chase. 

A woman with ties to Gilroy and San Benito County died Saturday, July 22, after a short chase with Gilroy police.

A recent press release indicated a police officer attempted to stop the woman, identified as 28-year-old Rya Leonard, at 2:25 p.m. near First Street and Wren Avenue.

According to Sgt. Jason Smith, Leonard initially appeared to comply with police.

“The officer ran the plate, determined the vehicle was stolen and then when he tried to stop the vehicle, the vehicle initially went at a slow speed and pulled into the CVS parking lot,” said Smith. “She slowed down as if she was going to stop and then sped off.”

According to the press release, Leonard then sped away southbound on Wren and crashed into a tree at the corner of Wren Avenue and San Miguel Street, where she was trapped inside the vehicle. Leonard was extricated from the vehicle and suffered from major injuries before dying at a nearby hospital, police say.

Smith added that Leonard had a couple warrants for her arrest. “She was on probation for possession of a stolen vehicle,” Smith said. “So we can assume that she knew that vehicle was stolen but unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to talk with her about it.”

It was later determined that the plate on the 1990s black Honda was altered to make it appear as if it was a different plate, said Smith.

The speeds Leonard was reaching on city streets are unknown.

“Seconds before the crash the officer estimated he was travelling approx 60 miles an hour,” said Smith. “To determine the exact speed of her vehicle we have the Major Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) conducting the investigation.”

Smith noted that the Gilroy Police Department does have a “comprehensive policy” regarding high speed chases.

“The primary purpose of the policy is to provide officers with guidance in balancing the safety of the public and themselves against law enforcement’s duty to apprehend violators of the law,” said Smith.

“I would say that deciding whether to pursue a motor vehicle is a critical decision that must be made quickly and under difficult and unpredictable circumstances,” Smith added. “The preliminary facts of the case show the officer was within policy and the law. The final determination will be made once the investigation is completed.”

Leonard’s mother Carol Leonard of Tennessee who last spoke with her daughter two months ago said, “Rya was an amazing young lady. She had a heart of gold.”

According to her mother, Leonard leaves behind a daughter who will be 10 in August. Leonard did not live with the child. “She loved her daughter more than anything in this world of course,” Carol said. “She loved her brother and sister, Robert and Sarah.”

Cousin Todd Leonard of Gustine, California said, “She went to school in both Santa Benito and Santa Clara Counties.”

“She went between her mom’s and her dad’s [Gilroy and Hollister],” said Todd. “She had been with her dad from the time she was about 13 or 14.”

Leonard’s cousin said she was loyal to her family.

“I used to think she was a good kid, but good kids don’t usually go out and steal cars and crash them running from the cops, but she was a caring person,” Todd said. “I wish she cared a little bit more about herself. She had a very hard life and unfortunately there weren’t enough people in her life to give her examples of the right way to do things.”

“Rya had a lot of friends and they all loved her she cared about others before caring about herself,” Carol said.