Collision death devastates families

In the days before Donovan Phipps ran a red light and plowed his father’s truck into a car, killing 21-year-old Juan Carlos Lugo, Phipps’ parents tried repeatedly to get help for their son, who has been diagnosed with mental illness.

The Feb. 24 collision at First Avenue and The Esplanade, near Chico High School, was Larry and Colleen Phipps’ worst nightmare, but they acknowledge it is nothing compared to the loss suffered by Lugo’s family.

“Our whole family is devastated at the pain our son caused to another family,” said Colleen Phipps, who was in tears the morning after the wreck. She loves her son but would rather he had died than the innocent Lugo, a devout Mormon who had just dropped his little brother off at Pleasant Valley High School.

“Juan was just a great person,” said Dennis Freire, a leader in the Lugos’ congregation. Lugo had returned Jan. 9 from a two-year mission in Brazil and was studying mechanical engineering at Chico State University.

Lugo’s father, Bill, had been away serving in the military since late January and returned Feb. 25 upon getting word of his son’s death. The time they had together, he said, “was very short and very precious.”

“He was a great person. He cared for the human beings. It didn’t matter who it was,” Bill Lugo said. Juan Lugo was close with his brothers and especially enjoyed sports, having won several awards while playing for Pleasant Valley High School. A funeral service open to the community will be held on Saturday, March 1, at 11 a.m., at the LDS church at 2430 Mariposa St.

Colleen Phipps hopes to offer her condolences personally to the family. She said her son, transferred from Enloe Medical Center to Butte County Jail on Feb. 25, is in a psychotic state and likely unaware of what he has done.

Freire said that, even in their grief, Lugo’s family thought of how there must be another side to the tragedy. “Juan himself was a very loving and forgiving and understanding person. His family’s that way,” he said. “I have seen much room for forgiveness.”

The Phippses’ struggle was detailed in a March 1997 cover story in the Chico News & Review focusing on how some mentally ill people “self-medicate” with illegal drugs and end up in jail for committing crimes advocates feel are related to the disease. The Phippses have long been active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, advocating for decriminalization and awareness. Colleen Phipps is the Butte County chapter president.

Phipps went through several treatment programs for manic depression and schizoaffective disorder and, his mother said, had been off illegal drugs and taking medication that allowed him to function normally and be employed for the last five years. But about two weeks ago, she said, the family could tell something was wrong.

“He was off his medication. We said we needed him 5150’d,” she said, referring to the code under which people with mental problems can be held for 72 hours if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. But law enforcement and county mental-health officials didn’t agree, Phipps said.

Chico Police Sgt. Lori McPhail said that, while her agency is familiar with Phipps, it was the Sheriff’s Department that was responsible for responding to calls from his family. “They’ve tried to call on him, but we tell them he’s in the county,” McPhail said. Lt. Dave Panchesson, of the Sheriff’s Department, checked a month’s worth of records without finding reference to Phipps.

After the collision, Phipps, 33, fled the scene and was pointed out by citizens. He is being charged with felony hit-and-run and vehicular manslaughter.