Two California Highway Patrol officers were killed in the pre-dawn hours Monday when they slammed into a guardrail and then a freeway exit sign as they responded to a collision on Highway 99 in Kingsburg.
Officers Juan Jaime Gonzalez and Brian Mitchio Law, who were friends as well as graveyard-shift partners, are the first Fresno CHP officers to die in the line of duty in more than 50 years.
The CHP said the officers were racing to a call when a tragic turn of events cost them.
Capt. Dave Paris said the CHP received multiple calls about a collision in the northbound lanes of Highway 99 south of Sierra Avenue just before 6 a.m.
But the accident stretched across the southbound lanes of the highway, north of Sierra, and the officers unwittingly sped into it. Gonzalez, who was driving, took evasive action to avoid striking any of the other parties and struck a guard rail and an exit sign just north of the Sierra Street/Conejo Avenue exit before their Crown Victoria flipped on its roof. The officers died at the scene.
"Everybody that comes on the CHP understands the risks," Paris said. "Their biggest goal is to help their community, to strengthen their community. They understand that they can become a victim of an assault or a traffic collision. It's always in their mind and they prepare for it."
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow, in a briefing at the crash scene, said the two officers were friends and partners who trained together and graduated together from the CHP Academy about six years ago.
"Obviously what we have here is a tragedy. We lost two fine officers," Farrow said.
Gonzalez, 33, and Law, 34, graduated in 2008 from the California Highway Patrol Academy, where they were classmates, Paris said. The men were both initially assigned to the Bay Area.
They then both came to the Fresno office, where they teamed up to work the night shift and became the best of friends.
Law, of Clovis, is survived by his wife, Rebecca, and three children. Gonzalez, who lives in the Fresno area, is survived by his mother Maria, a sister, Sandra, and was talking about marriage with his girlfriend, Paris said.
Services for the men are pending.
The officers are the first from the Fresno CHP office to die in the line of duty since Jerry E. Turre was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while laying flares at an accident scene near Fresno on April 21, 1962, according to CHP records.
The most recent fatalities in the Central Division, which stretches from Kern County to Stanislaus County, involved Officer Earl Scott, who was fatally shot during a traffic stop on Highway 99 in Ripon on Feb. 17, 2006, and Officer Erick Manny, who was killed Dec. 21, 2005, in an automobile accident on Interstate 5, near the Grapevine in Kern County, CHP officials said.
This is the first time since 1998 that the CHP has lost two officers in the same incident.
At the CHP's Fresno office, flags were lowered to half-staff, and officers at the scene struggled to cope with the loss.
"It's draining -- a lot of the officers are drained," said CHP spokesman Axel Reyes. "It's tough. Officers are having a tough time -- some more than others."
Reyes said the initial call came in about 5:57 a.m., and dispatchers received the call about the officers' crash at about 6:07 a.m. The crash happened in the pre-dawn darkness, but there was no fog at the time, the CHP said.
"We're not sure exactly what happened in the first collision, but it appears there were two or three vehicles involved," Reyes said. A white pickup truck against the center divider with major front-end damage faced north in the southbound lanes.
Farrow, the CHP commissioner, said the white pickup apparently was the first vehicle in the incident to which the officers were responding. "Prior to our arrival, it appears another vehicle may have hit the truck" and come to rest a short distance to the south.
"We're not sure if the officers ... thought the crash was further down the road," Farrow said. But "as they approached the scene, they lost control of their vehicle. ... They hit the guardrail and ultimately hit the sign."
Reyes said it is standard to have two officers in a car for the graveyard shift.
The CHP's major-accident investigation team spent hours scouring the scene for evidence. Reyes said wreckage, skid marks and fluid trails were spread out over a couple hundred feet of the freeway from the center divider to the right shoulder.
Paris, the CHP captain, said investigators focused much of their initial work on the patrol car so that the fallen officers could be removed from the wreckage as soon as possible. Still, the bodies of the two officers remained in the overturned vehicle for more than four hours as investigators continued to measure skid marks and map the debris on the freeway.
At one point, firefighters used a saw to cut away a portion of the mangled guardrail that the car hit before it slammed into the sign pole.
Shortly before noon, a stark white van from the Fresno County Coroner's Office was accompanied by a caravan of CHP patrol cars with their lights flashing as it headed to Fresno with the two bodies.
The crash shut down southbound Highway 99 for hours.
Traffic was diverted off the highway at Mountain View Avenue south of Selma, and cars were at one point backed up to beyond central Selma. Even after southbound traffic was allowed again, the slow lane was kept closed for the investigation, forcing thousands to pass the tragic scene in a slow procession.
Correction: An earlier version of this story, based on information the CHP provided on Monday, said the most recent Central Division officer to die in the line of duty was Erick Manny, who was killed in a Dec. 21, 2005, crash on Interstate 5 at the Grapevine.
Valley CHP officers who died in the line of duty:
Dean J. Esquibel,of the Hanford office, was killed during a chase on Highway 198 near the Kings-Tulare county line on Aug. 21, 1985.
J.J. Schumacher Jr., of the Merced office, died when he was hit by a driver while issuing a ticket on Highway 99 on June 13, 1981.
Donald R. Holloway, of the Coalinga office, died when his aircraft crashed while flying home from a court appearance in a criminal case on Jan. 3, 1980.
Alfred R. Turner, of the Los Banos office, was mortally wounded in a shootout with a suspect on Interstate 5 near Los Banos on Dec. 16, 1975.
Alfred G. Johnson, of the Merced office, was killed during a traffic stop on April 27, 1972.
Leonard L. Layton, of the Merced office, was killed when his patrol car went over an embankment enroute to a court appearance in Ukiah on Nov. 8, 1964.
John R. Ellis, of the Visalia office, was killed when the patrol car he was a passenger in skidded off a rain-slick road and crashed into a grove of trees outside of Visalia on Nov. 5, 1963.
Jerry E. Turre, of the Fresno office, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while laying flares at an accident scene near Fresno on April 21, 1962.
Charles D. Goss, of the Madera office, was killed in a head-on crash as he was leaving the scene of a five-vehicle collision on Nov. 25, 1955.
Richard Simpson, of the Visalia office, was struck and killed as he was responding to the scene of an automobile accident on Sept. 25, 1946.
Norman A. Kessler, of the Visalia office, was killed when he lost control of his motorcycle as he pursued a traffic violator on May 17, 1945.
Sgt. E.R. "Ed" Carr, of the Fresno office, was killed when he was struck by a car as he investigated a stalled vehicle near Fresno on Jan. 27, 1938.
Source: California Highway Patrol