ACCIDENT SHUTS DOWN 99: A big rig overturned on Highway 99 in Merced early Wednesday morning, spilling sharp shards of broken glass across the highway and closing both northbound lanes for several hours. California Highway Patrol investigators say the accident happened because the truck driver was more focused on his cell phone than his driving. The driver had only minor injuries, and no other vehicles were involved in the messy incident. CHP spokesman Shane Ferriera said the truck was traveling northbound near the 16th Street exit, when it suddenly drifted into the highway's median around 3:15 a.m., striking the guardrail. The truck damaged a 240-foot portion of the guardrail, then turned over on its left side and blocked both lanes. Ferriera said the truck driver complained of pain but wasn't taken to the hospital, telling officers that a family member would take him there. Ferriera said the driver, Donnie Hendrix, 44, of Turlock, told investigators he was reaching for his cell phone before he lost control of the truck, which was carrying a shipment of recycled glass. The CHP reopened the slow lane at 9:08 a.m.
STOLEN VAN HAD CHILD INSIDE: Three men were arrested early Wednesday morning after they allegedly stole a van with a sleeping child inside, abandoned it several blocks away and finished their journey in a taxi. Merced police Sgt. Alan Ward said the van was stolen at 3:30 a.m. from West 12th Street after its owners left it running with their 7-year-old son asleep and went back into the house to get another child. They returned to see the vehicle being driven off. Officer John Pinnagar found the van abandoned on West 13th Street; the child was found curled up in a blanket under a tree just up the block. Witnesses at Mercy Medical Center Merced reported seeing three men, who appeared out of breath, get into a taxi at the hospital. A call to the taxi company confirmed a taxi picked up three people at the hospital and that they had dropped them off on Easy Street east of Merced and that a car had just left the residence. Officers observed a vehicle leaving Easy Street heading back into the city. The vehicle was stopped on East Childs Avenue. The taxi driver and the witness from the hospital identified the men as the three who got into the taxi. Paul Robert Benitez, 32, Fidel Granados Ortega, 25, and Alfonso Rodriguez III, 31, all of Merced, were arrested on auto theft charges and booked into Merced County Jail. Ortega and Rodriguez remained jailed in lieu of $10,000 and $45,000 bail, respectively, according to a correctional official.
BURNED REMAINS FOUND: Burned human remains were discovered inside a heavily scorched mobile home in Parksdale this week. What makes the Madera County case so bizarre is the fact that firefighters extinguished the blaze at the residence more than two months ago. And officials with the Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit admit they didn't see the body while fighting the fire on March 5. A Madera County sheriff's deputy discovered the skeletal remains while walking through the mobile home at 28575 Avenue 13¼ on Tuesday. The deputy visited the mobile home following up on a May 12 missing persons report filed by the family of Edward Cripe, said sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart. Cripe, 73, was believed to be the property owner and lone resident. DNA tests on the body will be needed to determine whether it's Cripe because the body was burned beyond recognition. When asked whether firefighters could have missed seeing a body during the fire, Karen Guillemin, spokeswoman for the Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa Unit, said a thermal imaging camera was used during the blaze -- and there was no indication a body was inside. Guillemin said it is not the Fire Department's responsibility to remove debris or clean up the house after the fire. "We did our due diligence and we left," she said.