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Almanza pleads innocent to charges of drunken driving, hit-and-run

Diana Almanza, former director of A Woman’s Place, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of misdemeanor drunken driving and hit-and-run driving.

Almanza, who led the prominent Merced nonprofit for 13 years, was arrested twice in one week in September after allegedly striking the same parked car on two separate occasions while behind the wheel of her SUV. Both times, authorities say, she was drunk.

The 44-year-old Almanza appeared in Merced Superior Court for a Thursday morning arraignment hearing, where she pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanor counts stemming from the September arrests.

She couldn’t be reached for comment after the hearing. Her attorney, John Garcia, said he couldn’t comment on the case. “I still haven’t looked over all of the police reports yet, so there’s not much I can say right now,” he said. “At this point, pleading not guilty is really just a matter of course.”

Almanza was temporarily suspended as director of A Woman’s Place, which provides an array of services for victims of rape and domestic violence, in October. She hasn’t returned to work since. Last month, the agency’s board of directors announced her permanent departure, though it wouldn’t say whether she quit or was fired.

An acting director has been named while the board searches for a permanent replacement.

The state Attorney General’s Office filed the charges against Almanza last month and will handle her prosecution. Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II has recused himself from any involvement in the case because he’s worked closely with Almanza in the past. (A Woman’s Place is often involved in prosecuting its clients’ abusers.)

Almanza was first arrested on Sept. 23 shortly after midnight in the parking lot of the Rancho San Miguel Market on Yosemite Park Way. Police say Almanza’s car had struck a Ford van and a city street sign on Dinkey Creek Avenue earlier that night.

A week later, Almanza was arrested a second time. She was booked into jail just after midnight, again on charges of drunken driving and hit-and-run driving. Police say Almanza coincidentally hit the same Ford van as she had six days earlier.

A police report on her second arrest says Almanza slurred her speech and nearly fell over during a field sobriety test. She submitted to a breath test, with results of 0.09 and 0.08 blood-alcohol content. Blood test results that came back in December showed Almanza had Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug, and alcohol in her system.

Officials with A Woman’s Place said Almanza checked into a Bay Area residential treatment program for alcoholics soon after her second arrest.

Garcia said she’s no longer in a residential program, but that she’s still receiving out-patient treatment. “She’s doing very well,” he said. “She’s following the advice of her rehab counselors and returning to stable mental health.”

Almanza is next scheduled to appear in court on April 7 for a pre-trial hearing.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 209 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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