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Report of armed man triggered events that led to fatal crash of Tulare County Sheriff’s Dept. plane

Tulare County sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, top, and pilot James Chavez died in a single-engine plane crash near Springville on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016.
Tulare County sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, top, and pilot James Chavez died in a single-engine plane crash near Springville on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. Special to The Bee

12:30 p.m.: The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department released more details Thursday about an incident that preceded a sheriff’s plane crash that killed the pilot and a deputy aboard.

About 3:25 p.m. Wednesday, the department got a call about a man brandishing a knife in the the 27500 block of Avenue 146 in East Porterville.

He got into a vehicle and a woman drove him away, the department said.

Two deputies responded in squad cars, but the man and woman were gone by the time one got there. Another deputy found the vehicle and, after a short pursuit, pulled it over and arrested both people 25 minutes after the call came in.

The deputy was out of radio range, so the airplane was dispatched to help find the car and suspects from the air and to make sure the deputy was safe, sheriff’s spokeswoman Teresa Douglas said.

The airplane was already in the air in the area of Highway 198 and Road 182 and sent to the area, she said.

The man and woman were arrested at the end of a road west of Lake Success, Douglas said.

Joshua Williford, 34, was arrested on suspicion of brandishing a weapon and criminal threats.

Sage Emerson, 18, was arrested on charges of evading an officer and resisting arrest.

Noon: Gov. Jerry Brown sent his condolences to the relatives of the two men killed in the plane crash.

Brown said he and his wife Anne “extend our deepest condolences to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and the friends and family members of Deputy Ballantyne and pilot Chavez during this difficult time. We are grateful for these men, who made the ultimate sacrifice doing what they did everyday – serving and protecting their community.”

Flags at the State Capitol are being flown at half staff Thursday in their honor.

11:50 a.m.: Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said at a news conference Wednesday night that the airplane came equipped with a parachute that was not deployed, nor was a distress call made.

“It happened so quickly – there was no distress call, no Mayday, or the deployment of that safety device,” he said.

The sheriff’s department air unit operates an “Eyes in the Sky” program that uses a light sport aircraft based at the Visalia airport. It’s flown five or six days a week, Boudreaux said.

11 a.m. Thursday: Staff from the National Transportation Safety Board have arrived at the crash scene and have started their investigation into what caused the aircraft to go down.

Teresa Douglass, spokeswoman for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, said Boudreaux and his staff are also investigating the mishap. He is also meeting with relatives of the men who were killed and is assisting with making funeral arrangements.

Boudreaux told reporters Wednesday night that the aerial crew was helping deputies on the ground respond to a report of someone brandishing a weapon.

9 p.m. Wednesday: A veteran Tulare County sheriff’s deputy and a civilian pilot were killed Wednesday afternoon when their single-engine plane crashed near Springville in Tulare County.

Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, looking visibly shaken at an evening news conference in Visalia, identified the men as Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, of Visalia, and pilot James Chavez, 45, of Hanford.

The crash on a mountainside happened with no warning, Boudreaux said. “There was no distress call, no mayday,” he said.

The department first learned of the crash, which occurred about 4 p.m. east of the Eagle Feather Trading Post, from eyewitnesses who said they saw the wreckage ablaze, Boudreaux said. Caltrans closed Highway 190 in the area of the crash about 4:45 p.m. and reopened the highway by 7:09 p.m.

Brian Duke, who lives near the crash site, said one of his friends watched the plane pitching from side to side before it crashed.

Shawn Winter, a resident of Springville, was driving down the hill to pick up his daughter from school when he saw something on the hillside.

“I saw the black color of smoke. There was a big old ball of flame,” he said.

3,000The number of flight hours logged by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office aircraft before the crash

Lester Lawton, who lives on Success Valley Drive, said the plane crashed just off the highway on the hill behind Eagle Feather Trading Post.

“I couldn’t even see an airplane. I could see a black spot on the ground on the hill,” he said. “It didn’t look like there was remains left.”

Ballantyne and Chavez had just completed assisting deputies on the ground with the arrest of a suspect brandishing a weapon when the crash occurred, Boudreaux said.

He said Chavez was a veteran military pilot who had flown Black Hawk helicopters and served with the California National Air Guard. Chavez, who was hired in 2014, “was a fantastic pilot,” the sheriff said. Ballantyne, who began working for the sheriff’s office in 1989, had become a full-time observer in the plane a year and a half ago, Boudreaux said.

David Williams, a reserve sergeant and retired captain who oversees the air unit, said the aircraft that crashed was a two-seater Flight Design CTLS light sport aircraft that the sheriff’s office obtained in August 2011 and had more than 3,000 flight hours. The aircraft was selected because of its reliability and number of safety features, Williams said.

The safety features included a parachute, Boudreaux said. The plane was based at the Visalia airport and typically was in the air five to six days a week, he said.

The FAA and NTSB have launched an investigation of the crash, Boudreaux said. Duke said the hillside behind his home was bathed in light Wednesday night as investigators worked at the crash site.

The sheriff’s office as well as the community are hit hard by the loss of the two employees, Boudreaux said. He asked for prayers for the victims’ families as well as the department.

“Our community is a strong one, and we will come through this, and our department is a strong one, and we will come through this,” he said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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