Prosecutors declined to file charges Thursday against the driver of a pickup truck that was hit by a Metrolink train in Oxnard this week, opting to wait for the completion of the investigation.
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten said the ongoing investigation was “complex” and he would wait until it is finished before making a final determination on whether to file charges against Jose Sanchez-Ramirez.
“While charges will not be filed at this time, the arrest of Jose Sanchez-Ramirez by the Oxnard Police Department was clearly appropriate and lawful,” Totten said.
It was unclear Thursday afternoon whether Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, had been released from custody.
Shortly after Totten’s announcement, Sanchez-Ramirez's wife, his son and his son’s girlfriend gathered outside the courthouse to express concern over the injured passengers.
Speaking on behalf of his father, Daniel Sanchez said, "My father and the rest of my family are praying for everyone's speedy recovery and our concern and thoughts are with the victims of the accident and will be until all of them return to health."
Sanchez-Ramirez’s attorney, Ron Bamieh, said he will appear May 4 in court.
"The failure to file charges at this point does not preclude them from filing charges later," he said. "I know there's great concern for the engineer ... We're all praying for his health."
Sanchez-Ramirez had been in police custody since early Tuesday, when police say they found him walking and apparently disoriented more than a mile from the scene of the derailment. The Yuma, Ariz., resident was booked on suspicion of felony hit and run and is being held on $150,000 bail, officials said.
Bamieh said Thursday that police should have waited before arresting Sanchez-Ramirez.
“The Oxnard Police Department, who has no experience in trail derailments, thought it was necessary to arrest somebody within 12 hours of the accident,” he said. “That on its face is ridiculous and it was a ridiculous move by them. They should have waited.”
The derailment occurred before 6 a.m. near the Rice Avenue crossing. Sanchez-Ramirez's Ford F-450 was hauling a trailer when, according to his lawyer, he mistakenly turned and drove onto the tracks and became stuck. Sanchez-Ramirez was in the area for work and thought he was turning onto 5th Street, Bamieh said.
It was only after he couldn’t dislodge the truck and couldn’t find anyone in the area that Sanchez-Ramirez walked away to find help, Bamieh said.
After Sanchez-Ramirez left, officials said, the first Metrolink train of the morning out of East Ventura barreled into his truck. Three passenger cars, designed with the latest crash-protection technology, tumbled off the tracks and onto their sides. A fourth car and the train’s locomotive also derailed.
In all, 50 people were involved in the collision; 28 were hospitalized.
Two passengers remained in critical condition Thursday, including the train’s engineer, who is clinging to life, officials said. The 62-year-old was transported Thursday to a specialized care facility, a Ventura County Medical Hospital spokeswoman said.
The engineer has 42 years of experience and is ranked No. 1 on the Metrolink seniority list, said Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board member.
Meanwhile, federal investigators continued to investigate the incident.
Investigators said Thursday they intend to obtain Sanchez-Ramirez’s cellphone records to determine whether he was using the devices, or accessing any street maps, at the time of crash.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said preliminary information from the train’s data recorder shows its horn sounded 12 seconds before impact and that the throttle was moved into the idle position 11 seconds before the crash. The train’s emergency brakes were applied eight seconds before it struck the truck, they said.
The Metrolink train was traveling 56 mph when it hit the truck, well below the 79-mph speed limit, Sumwalt said. A 31-year-old student engineer was operating the train at the time of the crash, he said.
A forward-facing camera showed the truck’s headlight and emergency flashers were on as the train approached, and the grade-crossing arms had come down down and all signals were working as designed, he said.
The truck was facing the train and its passenger-side tires appeared to be straddling the southern rail while the tires on the driver’s side were outside the rails.
Sumwalt said investigators believe Sanchez-Ramirez was driving south on Rice Avenue and probably intended to turn right on East 5th Street, but instead made the turn about 55 feet too early onto the railroad tracks.
"One of the things we'll be looking at is how could a driver believe that that was a road," he said.