TEMECULA, Calif. — A Chevrolet Suburban fleeing Border Patrol agents crashed at high speed into a passing car outside a high school Tuesday, killing four students and a father driving his son to school and injuring the 13 occupants of the camper.
The accident occurred just after 7:30 a.m. as horrified students arrived for classes at Temecula Valley High School. Wreckage and bodies were strewn across a busy intersection in this fast-growing, semirural community in southern Riverside County, renewing controversy over Border Patrol policy on high-speed chases.
The stolen Suburban carrying 13 suspected illegal immigrants ran a red light and smashed into an Acura Legend with such force that it tore the smaller vehicle in half, killing the father, his son and a teen-age friend, authorities said.
"There was metal and glass and rubber and people . . . all went up in the sky," said Jason Boles, a driver who witnessed the crash. "There was notebook paper all over the place so I knew there were kids involved. And I could see the dad in the front seat of the Acura with his suit on, and he was dead."
The careening truck also struck and killed two students walking on the sidewalk: a brother and sister whose mother, a reporter, learned of their deaths as she was covering the accident for her newspaper.
"The kids were on the sidewalk just where they were supposed to be and they got killed," said Riverside County Sheriff's Investigator Henry Sawicki.
Four of the suspected illegal immigrants suffered serious injuries when the truck overturned. The driver--a suspected smuggler from Mexico--and eight other passengers were treated for minor injuries, then turned over to police for questioning. The driver is a juvenile and his name was not released.
The accident revived arguments about Border Patrol chases in cities near Southern California freeway immigration checkpoints.
After Tuesday's tragedy, some angry Temecula residents and officials questioned why immigration agents pursued suspects into a residential area near a school.
The high-speed chase began after the Suburban left northbound Interstate 15, drove on surface roads around a Border Patrol freeway checkpoint near here, and returned to the freeway. A Border Patrol vehicle began to chase the Suburban, which left the freeway again and sped into the town.
Officials said the agents slowed down before the accident at the intersection of Rancho Vista and Margarita roads. The Border Patrol vehicle, which was pursuing the truck eastbound on Rancho Vista Road, "slowed its pursuit when its emergency siren and red lights failed," said Gus de la Vina, chief of the San Diego Border Patrol sector. "The vehicle continued to follow the van at a quarter-mile distance."
A preliminary investigation indicates that the pursuing agents acted properly, said De la Vina, who blamed the accident on the suspected smuggler driving the Suburban.
Sheriff's detectives have not determined whether the Border Patrol was engaged in a pursuit when the crash occurred or what charges will be filed, Sawicki said.
One witness said the Border Patrol vehicle appeared to slow down. "The Border Patrol car stopped at the top (of the street) like he wanted them to know he stopped chasing them," student Mike Madieros said.
The incident began more than 60 miles away near the U.S.--Mexican border in San Ysidro, according to Border Patrol spokesman Earl Beasley, when plainclothes immigration agents saw suspected illegal immigrants climbing into the Suburban.
The plainclothes agents followed the truck to the Temecula checkpoint, he said. They asked Border Patrol agents to intercept the truck, but it sped away when agents tried to pull it over at the Rancho California Road freeway exit several miles west of the high school.
"They were following to see its destination," Beasley said. He had no further information about the delay in attempting to stop the truck.
The dead were identified as Temecula banker John Davis, 46, driver of the Acura; his 17-year-old son Todd Davis; a friend, 14-year old student Monisa Emilio, and the brother and sister on the sidewalk, Gloria Murillo, 17, and Jose Murillo, 16.
Sobbing students were led into the school as police and emergency personnel swarmed around the wreckage. One of the many parents who rushed to the school was the Murillos' mother, who writes for a local Spanish-language shopping publication, El Remate.
Publisher Elia Esparza, Gloria Murillo's cousin, said Murillo was nervous when she headed for the scene, although she knew nothing of her children's deaths.
"She said it was a good thing that she was going to go down and report the story because it would give her an excuse to go into the high school and get her kids out," she said.
Esparza criticized the Border Patrol's chase techniques.
"The Border Patrol is at fault," she said. "They could stand outside our office in Temecula and catch all the illegals they want to. Why do they have to chase them?"