Seven members of a family riding along a rural Kern County road were killed in a head-on collision with a farm truck over the weekend, and California Highway Patrol officials were searching Sunday for the unharmed driver of the other vehicle after he fled the scene.
CHP officials believed that the hit-and-run suspect, a farm worker driving a large water tanker at the time of the tragedy, had fled south en route to his native Mexico. "We can't really tell if he's gotten there or not--hopefully not," said CHP Officer Chris Boudreaux.
The accident took place about 7:15 p.m. Saturday on a county road in northern Kern County when the water truck collided with a compact car driven by 68-year-old Ramona Medina on the 55-m.p.h. highway.
Medina and her six passengers--all from Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County--were killed on impact, Boudreaux said. Three of the victims were children.
Preliminary evidence at the scene indicates that the driver of the truck, whose identity was not released, lost control of his vehicle and swerved into the other lane, Boudreaux said. There is no sign that alcohol was involved, he added.
It is not known whether any of the seven people in Medina's car were wearing seat belts. But Boudreaux said: "It was hit so hard, I don't think it would have mattered. When I walked up, I couldn't even tell it was a car. It was just a mangled piece of metal."
CHP officials identified the victims, in addition to Ramona Medina, as Jose Medina, 75; Guadalupe Medina, 33; Maria Medina, 29; Angela Medina, 11; Monica Medina, 8, and Veronica Medina, 7. All shared the same address, but CHP officials said they were uncertain exactly how they were related.
The truck driver was picked up almost immediately by another worker from the same citrus farm, who was passing in a second truck, Boudreaux said. The second man, who took the hit-and-run suspect from the scene, was questioned by authorities and is not in custody, Boudreaux said, but may eventually be charged with aiding and abetting a felon.
Both men worked for Crop Care Applicators in nearby Shafter, in Kern County, and the owner of the farm has been cooperating with authorities to help find the suspect, Boudreaux said. "He wants me to catch him just as bad as I do," he added.
CHP officials searched for the suspect at several locations in the area Saturday night and learned only later from an acquaintance that they apparently had passed by him on their hunt.
"I'm getting a few leads, but I haven't caught him yet," Boudreaux said. "Came close--he drove right by me, but I didn't realize it was him."
It was one of the worst traffic accidents in Kern County history. A 1993 crash on California 99 claimed nine lives, but CHP officials in Bakersfield said this was the highest death tally in local memory for a single vehicle.