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Driver faces judge, bail set

Francisco Trinidad Martinez
Francisco Trinidad Martinez Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

A Modesto man charged with driving a stolen sport utility vehicle that caused a crash, killing three other people, made his first appearance Tuesday afternoon in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Judge Thomas Zeff said the sole survivor of the crash -- who was on parole for a prior hit-and-run conviction -- will be held in lieu of $5 million bail. Francisco Martinez, 26, is charged with three counts of murder and six other felonies.

Authorities say Martinez and his cousin Brandon Ellis, 20, of Riverbank were in a stolen 2002 Mitsubishi Montero about 2:30 Sunday afternoon when sheriff's deputies spotted them and began a chase that reached speeds of 90 mph.

Deputies broke off the pursuit, they said, because Martinez was driving erratically in heavy traffic. Authorities said Martinez ran a stop sign at Claribel and Coffee roads, north of Modesto, then slammed head-on into a Ford Taurus headed west on Claribel.

Martinez, who was ejected after the SUV struck a utility pole, was treated for injuries but was able to walk into the courtroom for his arraignment.

He had a bruise on the right side of his forehead and bandages on his right arm. He did not enter a plea, because his public defenders said they need more information about the case before they can advise him.

Ellis died at the scene.

The Taurus rolled over after the crash. Driver Steven Jackson, 53, of Modesto, died a few hours later at Doctors Medical Center. Passenger Heather Miller, 40, of San Leandro died Monday at Memorial Medical Center. Both were wearing seat belts.

Sheriff's deputies spotted Martinez and Ellis after a report of two men suspiciously dropping off one car and picking up another on Bangs Avenue, near North Star Way. According to the Sheriff's Department, the car the men dropped off was stolen.

Martinez is charged with three counts of murder, three counts of causing a fatal accident while evading arrest, auto theft, receiving stolen property and driving on a revoked license.

Miller's family established a trust account at Tri Counties Bank and is accepting donations to help support Miller's four children, ages 22, 18, 15 and 13. Donations can be made at any branch. Checks should read: "For the benefit of the children of Heather Miller."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached atsherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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