Mayhem and tragedy mark Merced Sun-Star’s most read stories from 2016

Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a crash, one of four involving a total of 16 vehicles on Highway 59 between Rahilly Road and East Sandy Mush Road in Merced County on Feb. 13.
Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a crash, one of four involving a total of 16 vehicles on Highway 59 between Rahilly Road and East Sandy Mush Road in Merced County on Feb. 13. Merced Sun-Star file

Tragedy grabbed the most eyes in 2016 on the Merced Sun-Star’s website, according to records, in a year that saw stabbings, deadly car crashes and a toddler who drowned in an irrigation canal.

Here’s a countdown of the top 15 stories, according to the number of page views recorded by

15. Crash victims identified as Tenaya teacher and student

Tenaya Middle School lost teacher Windly Soza, 41, and student Adrian Soza, 12, after the mother and son died Sept. 7 in a crash near Livingston, Sheriff Vern Warnke confirmed.

The California Highway Patrol reported that Windly Soza’s Lexus, traveling north on Highway 99, crossed over the center divide just before 5 p.m. that day and collided with a Dodge Ram pickup truck that was traveling south. The collision occurred in the southbound lanes between the Westside Boulevard exit and the Sultana Drive offramp. The Ram struck the passenger side of the Lexus before overturning.

14. Family of four killed in crash near Snelling

A crash discovered Feb. 15 near Snelling claimed the lives of four family members, the deadliest of a series of crashes over the Presidents Day weekend.

Officers pulled from the truck the bodies of Mario Hernandez, 33; his wife, Blanca, 31; daughter, Nayeli, 9; and son, Jonathan, 6.

A passerby called the California Highway Patrol just before 8:30 a.m. Feb. 15 to report spotting an overturned GMC Sierra in a canal east of Highway 59, Officer Moises Onsurez said. The truck had been traveling east on Youd Road when it left the roadway during the night and came to rest on its roof in the waterway, he said.

13. Merced homeowner wakes up, shoots teen burglar

A Merced homeowner and a 15-year-old boy exchanged gunfire May 25 after the teen woke the owner while burglarizing the home on Kingfisher Court, Merced police reported.

The homeowner awoke about 10:30 a.m. to noises inside the house and grabbed his gun to investigate before he saw the teen carrying items from the home, Merced police Lt. Chris Goodwin said in a news release.

The homeowner ordered the teen to the ground, but instead the teen dropped the items and pulled out a gun. The homeowner and teen exchanged gunfire before the teen ran out the front door, triggering the home’s alarm system, police said.

The suspect was found later by authorities at Mercy Medical Center. He was taken to a hospital out of the area and was expected to survive his injuries.

12. Kaepernick tells Denair crowd that Miami hotel room incident ‘changed my way of thinking’

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines this year for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, but it was a May 2014 story on what police termed a “suspicious incident” in a Miami hotel room that drew readers to the Merced Sun-Star.

Speaking at the 21st annual Turlock Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, the famous quarterback told a crowd he was not part of an incident that involved a 25-year-old woman. Kaepernick, 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton and Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette were not charged with any crimes, while the woman – reportedly a former girlfriend of Kaepernick’s – did not allege any criminal activity in a police incident report.

“Even though it’s a bad circumstance, a bad situation, I feel like ultimately I’ve been blessed because it’s changed my way of thinking,” he said. “It’s made me stronger. It’s made me look at things differently.”

11. Highway 99 rated deadliest in nation, study says

Highway 99 in the Central Valley is the deadliest major highway in the country, according to an analysis released Oct. 13.

The 400-mile highway that runs through the centers of Merced, Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto and other valley cities recorded 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles over a recent five-year span.

The report is from ValuePenguin, a private consumer research organization based in New York that reviews personal finance products.

10. Atwater teenager stabbed to death, suspect sought

An 18-year-old Atwater man was stabbed to death Jan. 30 at what authorities believe was a party, the Police Department confirmed.

The victim, Sergio Avelar, was pronounced dead around 2:30 a.m. inside a room at the Applegate Inn, 1501 Sycamore Ave., said Atwater police Lt. Samuel Joseph. No arrests have been made.

9. Former Merced County commissioner killed in early morning DUI crash

Ralph Cook, a retired Merced County commissioner who served more than 20 years, was killed June 8 after a bizarre series of events that began with a bar fight and ended hours later when the Mercedes he was riding in slammed into a guardrail on the outskirts of Merced.

The vehicle was driven by Jacqulin Calixtro, Cook’s girlfriend. The 38-year-old Atwater woman was arrested on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving. She has pleaded not guilty. Her case is ongoing.

8. Los Banos woman, child killed in Merced County crash

A 25-year-old woman, Destiny Hamlow-Norton, from Los Banos reportedly was speeding and trying to pass multiple vehicles when she slammed into an oncoming car south of Merced on April 14, killing herself and son, 5-year-old Noah Sisk, who was riding in the back seat, authorities said.

As she tried to complete a pass, she apparently saw an oncoming Nissan Murano and attempted to steer her Nissan 200SX onto the shoulder, the California Highway Patrol said. The oncoming driver did the same and they collided head-on, according to authorities. She was headed to a wedding, according to family.

7. 2 dead in series of crashes outside Merced

The California Highway Patrol said there was fog reported Feb. 13 on Highway 59 just outside Merced around the time of crashes involving 16 vehicles that ended in the death of two Lodi men.

The first crash was reported about 7:40 a.m. Saturday on Highway 59 near Rahilly Road, Officer Moises Onsurez said.

6. Merced deputies search for missing Delhi toddler

Merced County sheriff’s deputies began searching for a 3-year-old Delhi boy named Andres Tomas who had been missing since Oct. 22, Sgt. Delray Shelton said. Investigators believed the child was playing with siblings and may have wandered away.

The story would end tragically and become the year’s most read story.

5. Popular Merced restaurant owner dies at 44

Florencio Aguilar, a prominent Merced County restaurateur, was found dead at the age of 44 on April 6.

Aguilar, the owner of two popular Merced restaurants, La Morenita and Florencio’s, was found dead by family members around 4:30 p.m. at his home on Carob Court in Delhi, the Merced County Coroner’s Office said.

Those close to the prominent businessman declined to comment on the nature of his death, but authorities said foul play was not suspected.

Friends, family and employees spoke highly of him.

4. Empty creepy clown threats make their way to Merced

Social media posts in Merced from Oct. 3 brought the city into the national hoax involving people in creepy clown costumes, prompting schools to notify parents.

Merced police investigated the social media posts that had images of people dressed as clowns alongside threats mentioning Merced High School and El Capitan High.

Police stopped short of describing the exact nature of the threats in Merced, saying the threats were not credible and even “too vague” to define as a crime.

3. Atwater High student stabbed at school

A 16-year-old student with special needs was stabbed in the back April 13 in a “deliberate attack” inside the Atwater High School cafeteria, but the motive for the sudden violence was unclear, the Police Department said.

The attack was reported around 9:28 a.m. inside the school cafeteria on Fruitland Avenue, according to Atwater police. Investigators said the suspect, a 15-year-old boy, approached the victim from behind and stabbed him multiple times without warning.

2. 4 dead, more injured in Highway 99 bus crash

A bus carrying travelers from Mexico was ripped open Aug. 2 when it crashed into a highway signage pole south of Livingston, killing four people – though originally it was reported by authorities as five – and injuring several others in a scene described as having “a tremendous amount of carnage.”

The bus was carrying 27 people when it veered off Highway 99 and crashed just after 3:30 a.m., the California Highway Patrol reported.

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke identified the victims as Fernando Ramirez, 57; his wife, Petra Carrillo Ruiz, 64; Jose Morales Bravo, a 68-year-old man from Avalon; and 38-year-old Jaime De Los Santos of Tijuana, Mexico.

The passenger bus, registered to Autobuses Coordinados USA Inc. of Los Angeles, was traveling between the Mexican state of Nayarit and Washington state, according to agents of the bus company in Mexico, who declined to give their names to the Merced Sun-Star because they were not authorized to speak to a reporter.

1. Body of missing Livingston toddler found in canal

A Livingston family’s worst fears were confirmed Oct. 24 when authorities found the body of 3-year-old Andres Tomas in an irrigation canal near Delhi.

The child, originally reported as being from Delhi, was found about 7 feet underwater trapped in a weir near Lateral 6 of the Turlock Irrigation District canal near Griffith Road and Leatteau Avenue. The site is approximately 2 miles from the spot where Merced County sheriff’s deputies believe the boy went into the fast-moving waters, Undersheriff Jason Goins said.

The boy’s father, also named Andres Tomas, said young Andres had never been swimming but loved being near the water. “He liked throwing rocks in the water,” he said. “That’s what I think happened. He bent over to get a rock and tripped and fell over.”