By Tracie Cone
DINUBA, Calif. — Carlos and Jennifer Salazar had piled their five children into their pickup truck and were headed to a Pee Wee football kickoff carnival when a speeding car came out of nowhere.
The occupants had run a stop sign on a rural road and were fleeing a police officer at nearly 80 mph when they barreled into the family's truck. Eight people died: five kids all younger than 8, and the three teenagers trying to outrun police in a tragedy that has stunned people in this rural corner of California's citrus belt.
Criminal justice experts said it was one of the deadliest police chases they can remember, and it has renewed the debate about the dangers of high-speed police chases. In this instance, the officer did not know the fleeing vehicle had been stolen at gunpoint 12 hours earlier.
The crash comes as many departments around the country have limited chases in recent years because of the danger to officers and the public, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Their alternatives include relying on law enforcement bulletins and helicopters to track the car and avoid dangerous chases.
The issue has also reached the U.S. Supreme Court, with justices ruling in 2007 that suspects who flee cannot sue police if they are hurt. As a result of the protracted case that involved a fatal collision during a police chase, some departments tightened their policies.
"This is a very thorny issue because on the one hand if you have a very restrictive policy, you have people getting away, possibly felons or a drunk driver," said Larry Gaines, chair of the criminal justice department, California State University, San Bernardino. "On the other hand, you have to think about the level of danger imposed on society as a result of the pursuit itself."
The California crash devastated this town about an hour southeast of Fresno.
Mourners have stopped by a makeshift altar in the orange grove where four of the children and the three teenage suspects died in an instant Saturday. Dozens of candles burned amid rosaries, balloons, stuffed animals and photographs.
"No words can express the sadness we feel," said Carlos' aunt, Diana Guerra Silva, as she stood where the vehicles had snapped a tree at the ground.
At the Salazar home in nearby Orange Cove, the high school sweethearts were described by friends as devoted parents. Carlos, 29, works for an automotive glass company, and Jennifer, 26, works as a part-time letter carrier.
They had left an American flag flying and the front porch light on anticipating a late return with Eric, 8; Jochelyn Grace, 7; Monique Janae, 4; Michael Alexander, 3; and Sienna Rose, 1. The parents remained hospitalized Tuesday.
In this tight-knit community, many are affected. Jennifer Salazar's cousin on the Dinuba police force responded to the accident to identify the bodies.
"I'm sad because they were good people," said 9-year-old neighbor Bryan Quintanilla, who attended Sheridan Elementary School with little Carlos. "They used to invite me over for barbecues and we'd play baseball and stuff."
The four-mile chase Saturday began just before 2 p.m. when Officer Marcos Nunes saw a gray Dodge Neon run a stop sign as it headed east past endless vineyards and orange groves. At speeds approaching 80 mph, police said Nunes saw the car run a second stop sign two miles later as it began to pull away.
He called for the California Highway Patrol helicopter to take over the chase just before the stolen vehicle plowed into Salazar's pickup truck, ejecting four of the children. The fifth child later died at the hospital. Police said the parents and children, who were all inside the cab of the truck, were not wearing seatbelts.
Dinuba Police Chief James Olvera said Nunes, a five-year veteran and Dinuba native, has been put on paid administrative leave and offered counseling. Olvera said the preliminary investigation indicates proper procedure was followed.
"I feel sick inside still," said Olvera, who also was planning to attend the Pee Wee football event Saturday when he got the call about the accident.
The city's chase policy allows an officer to consider many factors when deciding whether it is safe to continue, including road conditions, traffic patterns and weather. The Dinuba department does not set a speed limit for its pursuits.
"People run for a reason," said Olvera, when asked whether a traffic violation is serious enough to warrant a high-speed chase.
Ron Hills, the only Dinuba officer to die in the line of duty, died in 1992 while chasing a suspect who had stolen beer from a convenience store.
After the Neon hit the Salazar's truck broadside, police learned it had been stolen earlier that day in a mugging behind a restaurant in Selma. Three men approached David Sperl, 26, and demanded his wallet and keys. When he resisted, police said, they pulled a handgun and took his cell phone, wallet and car.
The teenagers in the stolen car were identified as driver Oscar Esparza, 17, of San Diego; Arthur Rivas, 19, of Dinuba and Richard Carrasco, 16, of Dinuba.
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A fundraiser Sunday at the Citrus Mini Mart in Orange Cove raised money for the Salazar funerals, said owner Joey Guerra. "He was a young dad and he took his responsibility seriously," said Guerra. "He had his kids involved in sports, and he would work with them at it."