Crime

Man dies in Santa Maria apartment fire after fleeing from law enforcement

A man died Tuesday night after leading law enforcement officers on a pursuit, barricading himself in his girlfriend’s apartment in south Santa Maria, and setting it on fire, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The incident began at about 3 p.m., when a CHP officer spotted a Jeep Liberty driver speeding from the apartment complex on the 600 block of East Sunrise Drive, and tried to conduct a traffic stop, CHP Officer Danny Maher said.

The driver fled, turning from Santa Maria Way onto Miller Street and College Drive before the CHP officer lost track of the Jeep.

Other officers converged on the scene, and eventually located the Jeep at about 5 p.m. in a parking lot for a restaurant and other businesses at the corner of Sunrise Drive and Santa Maria Way.

After researching the vehicle’s registration, the CHP obtained information leading them to the Sunrise Drive apartment complex linked to the driver’s girlfriend.

With help from a neighbor, law enforcement officers contacted the girlfriend’s mother, who arrived at the scene, and had learned that her daughter was inside the residence with the driver.

The mother also contacted the driver’s father, who showed up at the scene as well.

The parents began walking upstairs when they decided to enter the residence, unbeknownst to officers, who quickly followed the pair.

“When they entered the apartment, they could smell smoke,” Maher said. “They visibly saw smoke coming from underneath the door of the bedroom. They attempted to open the door. It was barricaded, so they had to kick in the door and do everything they could to open that door.”

Efforts to get inside included using a less-lethal shotgun, or beanbag weapon, to try to open the bedroom door.

“They were having trouble breaking down the bedroom door because it was barricaded with dressers, from what I understand, so they were using the less-lethal shotgun to try to shoot out the hinges on the door so they could make better access,” Maher said.

Once inside the bedroom, they saw the source of the smoke.

“At that time they found the bed and several clothing items were on fire, several large flames in the bedroom,” Maher said.

They also found the bathroom door locked, with flames growing higher, forcing officers to retreat from the residence and call firefighters. While awaiting firefighters’ arrival, the law enforcement officers evacuated other apartments in the building.

“When they were able to finally enter the bathroom, they found the male subject and the female subject both unconscious,” Maher said.

Firefighters carried the pair outside, but were unable to resuscitate the driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene at approximately 6:40 p.m., Maher said.

The girlfriend was taken to Marian Regional Medical Center by ambulance after receiving CPR.

“They were able to resuscitate her, bring back a pulse and able to have her breathing and talking by the time they arrived at the hospital,” Maher said.

The condition of the girlfriend, whose name and age were not released, was not known Tuesday night. The name and age of the driver also were not released.

The CHP and Santa Maria police will investigate the incident, Maher said.

Crime scene tape was stretched around the parking lot of the complex, which is near the corner of Santa Maria Way, as residents and neighbors gathered nearby to watch the activity.

Others staked out spots in a church parking lot adjacent to the apartments. In addition to law enforcement officers, personnel from the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County fire departments along with Cal Fire also responded to the scene.

Amid the dangerous police operation with barricaded subjects, frefighters conducted an aggressive interior and exterior attack on the blaze, Santa Maria Battalion Chief Mike Barneich said.

Firefighters worked to quickly knock down the fire, he added.

“Multiple ventilation holes were put into place to release smoke and heat to assist with the survival of the barricaded subjects,” he said. Two firefighters were injured with at least one taken away by ambulance for treatment of what appeared to be minor injuries.

Damage from the fire was confined to one apartment, but residents of the other five units in the building were displaced for at least Tuesday night due to a lack of utilities. Red Cross assisted the 10 displaced residents.

Barneich estimated the fire caused $500,000 damage to the building and contents.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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