Ceres police send fatal crash case, recommendation to district attorney

Ceres police investigators are recommending a charge of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence against the driver whose pickup hit four junior high school students in Ceres last week, killing one and critically injuring another.

Sgt. Danny Vierra, head of the Ceres Police Department Traffic Division, said this morning the department referred the case to the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office on Thursday night.

On Feb. 9, witnesses told police that Larry Dale Duke, 45, of Ceres drove through a stop sign and ran into four Mae Hensley Junior High School students walking to school.

Danielle Tarancon-Leon, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, died at the scene. Nancy Zavala, an eighth-grader, was critically injured and is recovering at a Sacramento hospital. Two other girls also were hurt.

Duke said he wasn’t sure how the accident occurred, and that he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Vierra said a formal charge — and additional, less serious charges — won’t come before toxicology tests and other medical records become available next week.

According to multiple Web sites, a vehicular manslaughter charge without the use of alcohol or drugs but with gross negligence is punishable by up to one year in jail or two, four or six years in prison.

Vierra did not want to comment on the specifics of the charge until all tests results are in.

Police have said they did not think drugs or alcohol played a role in the incident, but any test results to the contrary could elevate the charge and subsequent penalty.

Duke, who has had a history of traffic violations and was blamed for a wreck last year that injured three people, had his driver’s license taken away following a review of his driving history and a “medical re-evaluation.”

Vierra said the victims’ family members have been asking why Duke is not yet in custody. Duke was admitted into a local hospital after the incident, and has since been released.

“We’re under a lot of political pressure to make an arrest family members, the public,” he said. “I understand it.”

He said the investigation is complicated and extensive, and that “there’s a lot more burden of proof to get to gross negligence.”

He said the district attorney’s office generally follows the recommendation of his department.