FRESNO — Two California Highway Patrol officers were killed in the predawn hours Monday when they slammed into a guardrail and then a freeway exit sign as they responded to a crash on Highway 99 in Kingsburg in Fresno County.
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 the tragedy occurred.
Capt. Dave Paris said the CHP received multiple calls about a crash in the northbound lanes of Highway 99 south of Sierra Avenue just before 6 a.m. But the crash 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 anyone else. The Crown Victoria struck a guard rail and an exit sign just north of the Sierra Street/Conejo Avenue exit before flipping 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.”
CHP 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 California Highway Patrol 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 academy, where they were classmates, Paris said. The men initially were assigned to the Bay Area. They then came to the Fresno office, where they teamed to work the night shift and became best friends.
Law, who lived in Clovis, is survived by his wife, Rebecca, and three children. Gonzalez, who lived in the Fresno area, is survived by his mother, Maria, and 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 a crash scene near Fresno on April 21, 1962, according to CHP records.
Exactly eight years before Monday’s fatal crash, CHP Officer Earl Scott was slain during a traffic stop in Salida. Four and a half years later, a Stockton man, Columbus Allen Jr. II, admitted in court that he shot Scott early in the morning on Feb. 17, 2006, after being pulled over because he feared arrest and possible prison time for being a felon with a gun in his car. Allen was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
This week 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 about 6:07 a.m. The crash happened in the predawn 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 sitting 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 involved 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 farther 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.”
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 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.
The crash shut down southbound Highway 99 for hours. Traffic was diverted off the highway south of Selma, and at one point cars were 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 scene in a slow procession.