Suicide was motive behind deadly Highway 140 crash, sheriff's detectives say

A fatal three-car collision reported Tuesday near Atwater was caused by a man focused on committing suicide, the Merced County Sheriff's Department has determined.

The collision involved a head-on crash between a Nissan pickup truck and a big rig on Highway 140 west of Hull Road. A third driver was also involved.

The driver of the pickup, 40-year-old Jason Andrew Shetler of Atwater, took his own life by swerving into oncoming traffic and hitting the big rig head-on. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and detectives found a suicide note in the wreckage, apologizing to friends and family, according to Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

The reasons leading up to the suicide remain under investigation.

The incident was reported after 11:30 a.m. Shetler was driving a 1986 Nissan pickup truck westbound at an unknown speed on Highway 140, according to Officer John Patterson, CHP spokesman.

Meanwhile, 53-year-old Yolanda Charlton of Merced was driving a 2002 Ford Taurus westbound on Highway 140 at an unknown distance behind the pickup.

At the same time, 40-year-old Arestides Fontes of Merced was driving the big rig pulling a double trailer eastbound on Highway 140 at about 53-55 mph. Shetler turned abruptly into the eastbound lane into the path of the big rig. The big rig and the Nissan collided head-on.

Shetler was ejected, his car overturning onto the east shoulder and coming to a rest in an irrigation canal.

The big rig skidded and overturned onto its right side across both lanes of Highway 140. While the big rig was sliding across the highway, the Taurus driven by Charlton crashed into the front of the big rig. The Taurus came to a rest on the east shoulder of Highway 140, and Charlton was taken to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto with major injuries.

Fontes suffered minor injuries and said he'd seek his own aid.

Charlton's family members said she remains unconscious in the hospital. Her injuries include a broken neck, broken pelvis and ruptured colon.

Charlton's sister, Carmen Goodrich, said her family is praying for her recovery. "Obviously, (Shetler) was pretty disturbed and troubled, but I need to forgive. I can't harbor anger for the rest of my life. That's not going to help me," Goodrich said.

Charlton has three children and works for Merced County Office of Education, Goodrich said.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.