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Judge to decide if Almanza hearing will be held outside Merced County

A judge will decide next month whether Diana Almanza, the longtime director of one of Merced County's most prominent nonprofits, should stand trial outside the county.

Almanza faces six misdemeanor counts stemming from two arrests last year, both for hit-and-run drunken driving. At the time of her arrests, she was the executive director of A Woman's Place, a local nonprofit agency that served victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

She was removed from that position a month after the arrests. A Woman's Place has since closed.

Almanza's attorney has requested that her arrests be handled as two separate cases. He's also asked for a change of venue if they go to trial.

A hearing that would have determined the outcome of both those motions was continued Friday.

Parties in the case are now set to meet Aug. 8 to decide whether Almanza's arrests will be handled as separate matters and whether any trial should be held outside Merced County.

"I just want to make sure (Almanza) get the fairest treatment possible,” her attorney, John Garcia, said. "Merced is a small community, and there was a lot of publicity and a lot of talk after her arrests. So it's hard for me believe she could get a fair trial here in Merced.”

It's possible Almanza's case won't go to trial at all. Garcia said he hopes to reach a plea agreement to avoid one. "We're still trying for that,” he said. "We'll have to see what happens though.”

Almanza, 45, pleaded not guilty to all the charges in February. She was arrested twice in one week in September after allegedly striking the same parked van on two separate occasions while behind the wheel of her SUV. Both times, authorities say, she was drunk.

Almanza left A Woman's Place in October.

The agency's board of directors at first said it stood by Almanza. In February, it released the findings of a financial audit that revealed major shortcomings in the agency's accounting practices and financial management. The board blamed Almanza for the troubles and said she attempted to hide the agency's struggles to make ends meet.

The board announced in March that it would close A Woman's Place's doors for good and lay off all its staff by June 30, saying the financial mismanagement was too much to repair.

Almanza's attorney said she has been scapegoated for the agency's collapse.

Almanza did not attend Friday's hearing, where Garcia asked for more time to respond to prosecutors' arguments against his motions.

In June, Mariposa-based nonprofit Mountain Crisis Services announced it would replace A Woman's Place, operating in Merced under the name Valley Crisis Services.