Placer sheriff promises full inquiry into fatal chase

Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner this week spoke out for the first time about a tragic high-speed chase that killed an Antelope man and his daughter, offering condolences for the victims and promising to conduct a thorough investigation into the episode.

Bonner said that he was “heart sick” for the family of José Luis Barriga-Tovar, 35, and daughter Anahi, 14, who were killed instantly when twins Roman and Ruslan Glukhoy allegedly crashed a stolen pickup into their white Kia on April 2.

“When something like this happens, it’s certainly taken very seriously,” Bonner said Wednesday in an interview with The Sacramento Bee, noting that his office will give the investigation into the event a “critical eye.”

The chase began when the Glukhoy twins and their friend Yuriy Merkushev, 21, allegedly sped away in a BMW following a car burglary in Auburn, authorities said.

Merkushev bailed out after the BMW crashed in Loomis and was arrested later in a parking lot, according to sheriff’s officials. The brothers then allegedly stole a Ford F-150 pickup and returned to Interstate 80, with two Placer deputies and one sergeant in pursuit.

The pickup, which at times reached speeds in excess of 100 mph, exited Antelope Road and struck the Kia as Barriga-Tovar was turning onto Antelope North Road, authorities said. The Glukhoys now face homicide charges, while Merkushev faces lesser charges in connection with the alleged burglary. All three pleaded not guilty in Placer Superior Court on Wednesday.

Placer sheriff’s officials have begun an internal investigation to determine whether department procedures were followed. The Sheriff’s Office will likely release the names of the deputies in question next week, said spokeswoman Dena Erwin. The three deputies have been interviewed and have not been placed on administrative leave, she added.

The Sheriff’s Office spells out its pursuit policies over nine pages, governing how deputies are to initiate, conduct and break off pursuits of fleeing suspects. The policy requires deputies to consider several factors before beginning a chase, including whether the suspect may be caught later without posing a threat to the public, the nature of the suspected offenses and the time of day.

Representatives of both the suspects and victims have indicated they may take the Sheriff’s Office to court, suggesting that deputies may share some of the blame in the fatalities.

Sacramento personal injury lawyer Omar Gonzalez, who has been retained by widow Anahi Corona-Tovar, reiterated on Thursday that “nothing has been ruled out.”

“We’re considering a lawsuit against anyone that has been involved in this horrific incident,” Gonzalez said.

Asked whether his office had any responsibility for the fatal outcome, Bonner said, “That’s what courts are for. There’s a process that goes through, including our investigation.”

Bonner added that he doesn’t yet have all the information but promised that investigators would look into the “totality” of the incident.

“It will be from start to finish,” he said.

For any complaint to succeed, plaintiffs would have to prove negligence on the part of the Sheriff’s Office, said Michael Vitiello, a criminal law expert and professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

“Did the police act within their duty to protect the public? Was the risk to the public so limited that the police conduct created a greater risk? Those are questions that need to be answered,” Vitiello said.

Any award would be difficult to determine without the facts, he said, adding that he believes such a case would be settled rather than go to trial.

However, Vitiello said it would be hard for the suspects to successfully sue the Sheriff’s Office, given precedent and regulations protecting law enforcement in the execution of their duties. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Scott v. Harris, when a suspect attempted to sue a Georgia sheriff’s deputy for running his car off the road during a pursuit, ultimately paralyzing the suspect. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of law enforcement.

“The police officer is allowed to use deadly force if the offender is risking serious harm to other people,” Vitiello said, referring to the ruling.

Gonzalez noted that the family has made no decision about filing a lawsuit against the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. Few facts are known at this stage, he said, since the police reports have not been released.

Bonner defended his deputies, saying that they were going off the policy checklist “mentally” during the pursuit.

“You have a checklist. It’s almost a decision tree,” he said.

While police chases are common, fatalities are rare, Bonner said.

“For this agency, it’s incredibly uncommon,” he said. “In my 40 years, I’ve never seen one end this way in my jurisdiction.”

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