Families sue county over deadly Stanislaus County chase

A 27-year-old man who killed three people in a collision during a high-speed chase with sheriff's deputies will be sentenced next month to nearly 30 years in prison.

But the families of those who died say Francisco Martinez, the man behind the wheel of the stolen car, isn't the only one to blame.

They've filed two wrongful death lawsuits in Stanislaus County Superior Court seeking unspecified damages against the county and Sheriff's Department for improperly chasing Martinez through north Modesto.

Among the dead were Martinez's passenger and cousin, Brandon Ellis, 20, of Riverbank. Martinez's car collided with a black sedan, killing driver Steven Jackson, 53, of Modesto and passenger Heather Miller, 40, of San Leandro.

Attorney Jim Struck, who represents the Jackson family, said there have been "inconsistencies" in the Sheriff's Department's report of events. He says the family wants answers.

"All they've got left now is trying to figure out what happened and make sense out of Steven's death," Struck said. "They never really got a fluid, complete story from the Sheriff's Department about what happened."

The lawsuit seeks to find out if deputies stuck to their department's pursuit policy.

"It's a stolen car. It's a property crime at this point. We've got the car identified," Struck said. "At what point do we start risking life and limb of innocent citizens?"

In court papers, sheriff's officials say the law shields officers from liability for suspect pursuits.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said it's "standard" practice to investigate accidents involving deputies. But he would not comment on any personnel actions that resulted.

Christianson called the incident "tragic," but said the blame should be placed squarely on the suspect who chose to run from law enforcement.

"Police pursuits are dangerous, but I don't believe we should be sending a message to criminals in the community that says you can commit a crime, jump in a car and speed away and law enforcement is not going to chase you," Christianson said. "The deputy sheriff didn't make the choice to engage in the chase; the suspects made the choice by fleeing."

According to the Sheriff's Department:

On Dec. 9, 2007, at 2:18 p.m., someone reported two men suspiciously dropping off one car and picking up another on Bangs Avenue near North Star Way in north Modesto.

Minutes later, two deputies in patrol cars spotted the white Mitsubishi sport utility vehicle described in the area where suspicious activity had been reported. They chased the vehicle east on Claribel toward Riverbank.

Martinez's erratic driving in heavy traffic prompted the deputies to call off the chase within about 40 seconds, authorities said at the time, but the fatal accident had just occurred about half a mile ahead of the deputies' cars.

Authorities said Martinez hit speeds up to 70 mph in a congested portion of two-lane Claribel. They said Martinez was trying to pass a car in his eastbound lane when he hit the car carrying Jackson and Miller head-on. Family members said the pair were out Christmas shopping.

About 300 people are killed each year in police chase accidents in the United States, and nearly one-third are innocent victims, according to a study by Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center of Seattle, which evaluated National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports from 1994 to 2002.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.