Riverdale woman pleads no contest to traffic collision that killed 5

A motorist who ran a red light and killed a woman and her four children in a fiery crash near Riverdale a year ago has pleaded no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and driving without a license and faces a year in jail, her lawyer said Wednesday.

Juana Martinez Bejarano, 43, of Riverdale entered her plea Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court.

Judge Brian Alvarez allowed her to be free on $10,100 bail until her sentencing hearing on April 28.

Fresno attorney Sam Salhab, who is defending Martinez Bejarano, said Wednesday that the pending jail sentence in appropriate because his client has no criminal record and had no drugs or alcohol in her body when the crash happened.

The California Highway Patrol said the collision happened around 7:05 p.m. Feb. 15, 2014, at Marks and Excelsior avenues, south of Riverdale near the Fresno-Kings county line.

Martinez Bejarano, driving a 2004 Nissan Quest minivan west on Excelsior, ran a stop sign and broadsided a southbound 2003 Ford Expedition SUV. The Ford burst into flames, killing Esmeralda Tafoya-Saucedo, 29, and her children: Isaac, 1; Nikko, 3; Jada, 6; and Breanna Reyes-Saucedo, 11.

Joe Saucedo, who was following his family when the crash happened, tried to rescue them, but the intense heat stopped him, the CHP said. A witness to the crash also told the CHP that the Ford was engulfed in flames up to 15 feet high and the victims were trapped inside.

The CHP said Martinez Bejarano was negligent because she was driving without a license and should have known about the stop sign since she lives in the area.

Court records say she had gone to Hanford to shop and and was returning home when the collision occurred. The victims were going to a birthday party in Fresno, but they first had to pick up a relative. Because of the collision, they never made it to the relative’s home.

“She cries every night and is truly sorry,” Salhab said Wednesday.

Salhab said his client made a mistake, and if anyone is to blame, it would be the Ford Motor Co., who builds the Expedition that the victims were killed in. According to Salhab, the collision didn’t kill the victims, smoke inhalation from the fire did.

He said he hired an accident reconstruction expert who found that the impact caused the gas tank of the Expedition to detach and spread fuel. The fuel then caught fire. “There’s something terribly wrong when a car gets hit and explodes,” he said.

“Most cars don’t explode,” Salhab said, noting the recent wrongful death civil trial involving a Greyhound bus slamming into an overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer on Highway 99 in Fresno. Three people in the TrailBlazer were killed, but the TrailBlazer never caught fire. Three people in the bus also were killed. A jury on Tuesday said Greyhound was not responsible for the July 2010 crash.

Salhab said his expert documented other cases involving Expeditions catching fire after a collision. He said he has given a copy of his accident reconstruction report to prosecutors so they can give it to the family of the victims who perished in the burning Expedition in case they want to seek a lawsuit against Ford.