A Merced County sheriff's deputy suffered minor injuries Tuesday chasing a known gang member through a sweet potato field and into a canal on the western outskirts of the Beachwood/Franklin area of Merced, according to Sheriff Vern Warnke.
Three men, described by investigators as known Norteno-affiliated gang members, were arrested around 4 p.m. after a routine traffic stop turned into a foot chase and minor scuffle involving Deputy Damian Sparks and a man who bolted from the car, Warnke said.
Inside the car, deputies found a loaded Ruger .357 Magnum revolver. Warnke held two of the men at gunpoint as Sparks chased the third man. The sheriff said he was grateful the traffic stop involving armed gang members didn't turn violent.
"Deputy Sparks had a few scrapes and bruises from going through the canal and a minor scuffle with one of the suspects," Warnke said. "He did a good job following his instincts (stopping the car) and chasing the guy down, getting him off the streets."
Sparks was treated for minor injuries at the scene and returned to work.
Warnke said the deputy spotted a 2004 Lexus sedan around 3:53 p.m. on Highway 99, just north of the Franklin overpass.
"Deputy Sparks noticed the vehicle had paper (license) plates, which is unusually for a car that old and the car's back window had been blown out, completely gone," Warnke said. "Because the vehicle had no plates, was several years old and was missing any (DMV) stickers, Deputy Sparks initiated a traffic stop to investigate."
Deputies later learned the vehicle was registered to at least one of the occupants, but Warnke said deputies are still looking into why the car had no license plates and was missing a back window.
The vehicle slowed but kept driving for a short time when the deputy first tried to stop it, raising "a red flag" for deputies in the area, including the sheriff, Warnke said.
The car eventually stopped on the roadside. As Sparks spoke to one of the occupants, a passenger darted from the vehicle, Warnke said.
The passenger, later identified by deputies as 24-year-old Jeremy Sua Bustamante of Merced, ran through a sweet potato field and into a canal before he was captured by Sparks. He was taken into custody after a brief struggle, the sheriff said.
All three men in the vehicle were on probation and required not to have contact with other gang members, Warnke said.
The other two men were identified by authorities as Joseph Sua Bustamente, 27, of Merced, and Rene Javier Saenz Hernandez, 24, of Merced.
All three were booked into the Merced County Jail on a short string of gang and weapons allegations, as well as probation violations. Jeremy Sua Bustamante also faces an additional allegation of resisting a public officer, according to booking records.
All three remained in custody Wednesday without bail.