A five-person, five-county crime spree was stopped by six deputies and a seven-second hail of gunfire nearly a year ago.
Now that the prosecution of those arrested has nearly reached their conclusion, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department shared with The Tribune details about the frantic final minutes of a chase that ended in San Simeon.
A trail of crime that stretched about 250 miles started when gang members stole a Lincoln Navigator in southwest Fresno late Nov. 27, 2010, a Saturday, and headed for the beach, Undersheriff Martin Basti and Senior Deputy Todd Steeb said in an interview Thursday.
The car’s keys reportedly were inside the unattended vehicle, Fresno police detective Roland Rico told The Tribune in early December.
‘Click it or ticket’
On Nov. 28, a Pacific Grove officer stopped driver Joe Hernandez, then 28, for a seat-belt violation, but as the officer approached the passenger window, the gang member sped away, barely missing the officer.
Dispatchers ran the license plate number, and said the vehicle had been reported as stolen.
About 9:50 p.m. that day, an attempted carjacking was reported on Highway 1 about two miles south of Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur. Shots were fired at John Ritter of Big Sur as he drove his Saab away rather than obey when a gang member told him to get out of his car.
The gang members burglarized another car before using a stolen credit card to buy gas at the Gorda Store at about 11 p.m.
They ordered the dishwasher and cook to lie face down and not look up. When one employee looked up, one of the gang fired a warning shot between the two employees.
Then the gang members fled south on Highway 1, with Monterey County deputies in pursuit but not yet close by.
Meanwhile, Senior Deputy Todd Steeb, the North Coast’s resident deputy, and Deputy Justin Nelson, both longtime area residents who went to school in Cambria, were in Cayucos, part of a beat that stretches 35 miles to Ragged Point.
Headed your way
At about 10 p.m., dispatchers issued a call to be on the lookout for the stolen SUV. The two deputies sped north, with Nelson at the wheel and Steeb manning the radio.
Basti said the deputies’ actions during the next 15 miles or so were crucial.
“They stayed calm. They were thinking ahead, using their experience, preplanning for the worst, following the rules for protecting the public and themselves.”
Steeb called in moments later for details and got an earful about crimes the car’s occupants allegedly had committed up the coast.
“Justin and I considered our options, the ‘what-ifs,’ ” Steeb recalled. “We know the area well and knew there are only three ways that car could get out of the Cambria area: south or back north on Highway 1 or east on Highway 46. We had to be ready with a plan for any scenario. We were determined to stop them before they got to Cambria.”
Not only would allowing the SUV to reach Cambria be a threat to its thousands of residents, it would also give the criminals more places where they could elude capture for at least a little while.
Setting up showdown
Nelson and Steeb concluded they had a short window of opportunity in a sparsely populated area between the south end of San Simeon’s motel row and San Simeon Creek Road and State Parks’ San Simeon Creek Campground, he said. During daytime hours, the stretch of road often has cars pulled over there to take photos of zebras grazing on the Hearst Ranch.
“The road’s straight there, and dark,” Steeb said. “There are few homes in that area, and there are barbed wire fences that the suspects wouldn’t know about, which would stop them. That’s where we had to do it.”
Meanwhile, Steeb was getting and giving constant updates to dispatch and deputies in other areas of the county, who were heading toward the expected confrontation, lights flashing and sirens wailing.
“We got to the county line,” Steeb continued, “and backed into a driveway in Ragged Point,” where their car was shielded by trees. They waited less than 10 minutes.
“The one we were waiting for rushed past,” Stebb said. “We pulled out behind them, ran the plate and confirmed it was the stolen vehicle. We stayed about 10 car-lengths back, because we knew they had weapons.”
San Simeon, a small town with fewer than 500 residents, straddles Highway 1. Deputies J.D. Cronin and John Pozdolski parked their squad car on the north end, on the west side of Pico Avenue. They turned off their lights.
Then Deputies Joshua Beene and Paul Munoz arrived in another car, parking on the other side of the highway. They only had seconds to wait.
As the Navigator sped past, followed by Nelson and Steeb, the other two patrol cars pulled in behind. The stage was set for the takedown.
By then, the people in the stolen car knew they were being trailed by three law-enforcement vehicles.
The stop and shooting
Hernandez suddenly pulled the Navigator into the highway left-turn pocket at the town’s southernmost street, Vista Del Mar. Steeb radioed Beene and Munoz, telling them to turn around, go back and come down Castillo Drive to block the gang members from heading back north on the motel-line frontage road.
The other two patrol cars squealed to a stop, trying to box in the Navigator.
Hernandez stopped briefly, but despite the deputies’ verbal commands to get out of the car, he put the stolen vehicle into gear, spinning the tires as he slammed on the accelerator and headed straight for the deputies’ patrol car.
“I thought he was going to kill us,” Steeb said.
Two of the deputies let lose a seven-second hail of gunfire — which felt like it took much longer, Steeb said — shooting out windows and flattening two tires on the Navigator, and also wounding Hernandez in the upper thigh.
The Navigator only made it only about 400 yards further south, where the five occupants — three men and two women — were taken into custody by the six deputies and Sgt. John Marrs, who’d also arrived at the scene. The 250-mile crime spree was over.
None of those arrested shot at the deputies, but Hernandez had driven the stolen car directly at two of them, and ultimately pleaded no contest to a charge of assault with a deadly weapon (the Lincoln Navigator) on a peace officer.
Only after the suspects were handcuffed did the unlikeliness of the situation hit the deputies, Steeb recalled.
“It’s 11:28 on a Sunday in November. Who’d have thought we’d be in a shooting in San Simeon?”
Even so, Basti said, “all their training paid off. Their actions were instinctive, which was good because the decisions had to be split-second and right on.”
On Oct. 20, Sheriff Ian Parkinson gave awards for outstanding service to deputies participating in the chase and takedown. Parkinson also handed out commendations to 23 other department employees and one citizen.
“We didn’t just sit there and wait for them,” Steeb said quietly of going out to meet the threat head-on. “We went out and met them at the county line. We just couldn’t let them shoot at people any more.”
Basti said, “Our deputies were thinking ahead, considering every option. They did their job. They protected the community.”
Fate of five involved in crime spree
Joe Hernandez Jr., 29: Sentenced to 20 years for assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, vehicle theft, burglary, robbery and gang involvement.
Ramiro Vasquez, 23: Sentenced to 18 years, eight months for vehicle theft, shooting into an occupied car, burglary, robbery and gang involvement.
Manuel Del Real, 22: Sentenced to 19 years for vehicle theft, attempted murder, burglary, robbery and gang involvement.
Flora Encinia, 33: Pleaded guilty to vehicle theft, possession of stolen property and involvement in a gang. Sentenced to a year in prison and a year of probation, but released on probation because of her health. Doctors say she is dying of cancer.
Delia Rosanna Pena, 22: Sentencing is set for Wednesday on charges of vehicle theft, possession of a firearm, possession of stolen property, aiding and abetting burglary and gang involvement.