Driver, some victims identified in deadly California 200 crash; witnesses describe devastation

Authorities said eight people were killed and 10 injured when a driver racing in the California 200 desert race in Lucerne Valley lost control of his off-roader, which went airborne and landed on top of spectators. The driver, who was uninjured, and seven of the eight people killed were identified Sunday by officials.

The driver “got airborne and, when he landed, rolled over straight into the spectators,” said Officer Joaquin Zubieta of the California Highway Patrol, the agency investigating the deadly crash. “People didn’t have much of a chance ... to get out of the way.”

Six spectators died at the scene. Nine others were airlifted to local hospitals, two of whom died later in the evening, Zubieta said. Of those hurt, five sustained major injuries and five had minor injuries, officials said. Brett M. Sloppy, of San Marcos, was the driver of the truck, according to Zubieta.

Sloppy, 28, lost control of his modified 2000 Ford Ranger while he was driving 45 to 50 miles per hour. He was not arrested, and alcohol was not a factor in the crash, officials said.

The San Bernardino County coroner’s office identified seven of the dead: Brian Wolfin, 27, of Escondido; Anthony Sanchez, 23, of Escondido; Aaron Farkas, 25, of Escondido; Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside; Zachary Freeman, 24, of Fillmore; Dustin C. Malson, 24, of Ventura; and Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas.

Witnesses to the crash described a chaotic scene where the victims had no time to flee as the out-of-control vehicle plowed into fans.

Jeff Musgrave, an off-roader from Orange County who was watching the race, called it gruesome but defended the driver.

“All I saw was the dust, and then I saw about 30 people on the ground. It was just brutal,” Musgrave, 43, told The Times. “The problem is the crowd was just too close. I don’t think the [racer] did anything stupid. He just hit it way too hard.”

Sloppy had to be escorted away from the area after the crowd “started to get rowdy,” Zubieta said. “People were upset.”

The 200-mile race, held on desolate Soggy Dry Lake on federal desert land just east of the San Bernardino Mountains, was sanctioned by Mojave Desert Racing and was part of a seven-race circuit. Off-roaders race around the 50-mile-long loop four times, reaching speeds upward of 60 mph.

A photographer at the race described a scene of devastation. “There was dust everywhere, people screaming, people running,” David Conklin told the Associated Press. “When I got up to the vehicle, I could tell that several people were trapped. There were just bodies everywhere. One woman with a major head wound [was] lying in a pool of blood. Someone else was crushed beneath the car.”

In the early-morning hours Sunday, the white Ford Ranger had remained at the scene, upside down, as CHP investigators crawled over the vehicle to search for any mechanical defects and to try to re-create the collision. Sponsorship decals plastered the sides of the truck. The area had been cordoned off with crime-scene tape through the night, and officers brought banks of lights to provide illumination as investigators combed the patch of desert. Officers continued to interview witnesses, competitors and race officials well into the early morning.

The spot where the racer lost control was called the “rock pile.” The track snakes between giant boulders and up a small hill -– sending many of the off-roaders airborne.

On Saturday, hundreds of spectators had been crowded around the site where the vehicle landed, some just a few feet from the main dirt track. Empty beer bottles and water bottles littered the area where the deadly collision occurred.

Online videos of previous races of the California 200 show spectators standing dangerously close to the speeding off-road vehicles, with no concrete barriers separating them from the cars.

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.