The sound was so jarring that some people along the gritty stretch of West Capitol Avenue assumed two cars had collided.
Residents rushed out of their mobile homes and motel rooms Tuesday night to find a gruesome scene: a man's body severed at the torso, his clothing strewn about the roadway and a shaken West Sacramento police officer emerging from a patrol car with a shattered windshield.
"It's terrible," said Guillermina Zamora, 43, as she reflected Wednesday on the previous night. "Everybody here is in shock."
West Sacramento police say one of their officers was on his way to join a vehicle pursuit, his lights flashing and sirens blaring, when he struck a pedestrian crossing the street.
The force of the impact was so great that the man's torso went through the officer's windshield, according to witnesses. His legs were found in the middle of West Capitol Avenue, just east of Pine Street.
The Yolo County Coroner's Office identified the victim as 31-year-old Brandon Louis Nickolas and described him as a local transient.
Two witnesses told The Bee that Nickolas appeared drunk before the collision, staggering through a nearby mobile home park and mumbling incoherently. Many complained the area is dangerously dark at night and lacks crosswalks Nickolas was jaywalking when he was struck.
The 17-year-old youth who was the focus of the police pursuit that night he allegedly was driving a stolen vehicle and failed to yield to officers is being held at Yolo County juvenile hall. Because he is accused of launching the events that led to Nickolas' death, West Sacramento police booked the teen on suspicion of murder, as well as car theft charges.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven said his office had not yet decided whether to file a murder charge or whether to prosecute the teen as an adult. Those decisions are expected today, Raven said.
The officer involved is a six-year veteran of the force, said Lt. Tod Sockman, a police spokesman. As is standard protocol, the officer has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal review and a criminal investigation by the California Highway Patrol.
Sockman said it was too early to know whether the officer acted in accordance with department policy. "I can't comment on whether he did anything right or wrong," he said. "That's all going to be pending investigation."
On Wednesday, residents of the area were still reeling from the night's events. They pointed to spray-painted marks where the victim's clothing had landed and to dark spots where his blood had stained the asphalt.
"Anyone who dies that way it's horrific," said James Vinson, 46, who ran out to the road after hearing the impact. He said he joined other bystanders in trying to block passing motorists from the carnage.
Javier Hernandez, 17, said he came out of his mobile home and saw a police officer staggering from his patrol car. Hernandez said he and another person tried to steady the officer, asking if he was all right. It wasn't until Hernandez turned his head that he saw the victim's torso in the front seat of the patrol car.
The officer was taken to the hospital but was not seriously injured, according to Sockman.
Hernandez said he doesn't feel the officer deserves punishment, but perhaps a break from duty. "I'm more than sure he's traumatized," Hernandez said.
The teen said he had talked to Nickolas before the collision. The victim had wandered into Hernandez's mobile home park, and the teen said he told the man he could stay but warned him not to "start problems."
"He was walking zig-zag," Hernandez said. "He couldn't keep his balance."
Other residents had mixed feelings about who, if anybody, was to blame for Nickolas' death. "I think it's wrong," said Amanda Huwa of the potential for the 17-year-old to face a murder charge. "Whoever hit (the victim) should get charged."
If prosecutors pursue a murder charge against the teen, it likely would be under the auspices of the "felony murder rule." That legal principle allows prosecutors to file murder charges against a person who commits a felony that leads to a death, such as a robbery gone awry.
Ruth Jones, a professor at Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law, said the felony murder rule typically is applied when the defendant is physically responsible for the death say, a suspect who strikes and kills a pedestrian while fleeing police.
"I would say this is not the classic felony murder case," Jones said.
Jones said the officer involved likely would not be criminally liable as long as his actions are deemed "reasonable" based on the circumstances. "If the officer was appropriately engaged in the performance of his duty, then there probably wouldn't be any criminal liability," she said.
"Police have the ability to do more than citizens," she added, including speeding to apprehend a criminal.
Vehicle pursuits have long been the subject of debate in law enforcement circles because of the inherent danger to bystanders as well as officers themselves.
The West Sacramento Police Department's vehicle pursuit policy acknowledges the dilemma: "The primary purpose of this policy is to provide officers with guidance in balancing the safety of the public and themselves against law enforcement's duty to apprehend violators of the law."
Some agencies have grown more conservative, adopting more restrictive policies or more frequently canceling pursuits except in the most egregious of cases. Still, they are not uncommon. Sacramento police officers have been involved in more than 100 pursuits so far this year, according to that agency; Sacramento County sheriff's officials estimate deputies engage in as many as six pursuits a week.
Those who live near the site of Tuesday's accident say they frequently see cars police and otherwise speeding down the road, a four-lane stretch with just gravel and dirt shoulders for sidewalks.
Neighbors expressed concern that the area has few streetlights and no crosswalks, despite foot traffic between two bus stops on opposite sides of the street.
Hernandez said there are many children in the area, some of whom dart out into the street in pursuit of stray soccer balls.
"It's not the first time," he said of collisions in the area. "And it won't be the last time."