Community outrage had been building over widespread incidents of alleged street racing throughout the city. Then, as if on cue, a crash near one of the reported epicenters of the illegal practice killed a Bakersfield woman and injured two children riding with her in her minivan.
It happened at dusk Sunday afternoon on one of the primary entry roads into the Seven Oaks residential development. A man apparently engaged in a street race on Old River Road, between Ming Avenue and White Oak Avenue, less than a mile west of The Marketplace shopping center, lost control and struck the woman's vehicle at approximately 4:45 p.m.
A red Mustang and gray Dodge Ram were involved in a street race, Bakersfield police confirm, when the Mustang lost control and struck the van, which was not involved in the race.
The van was sent spinning out of control and into oncoming traffic, where it was then broadsided by a crane truck, killing the woman. The Kern County Coroner's office identified her Tuesday morning as Maria Blaney Navarro, 58, of Bakersfield. She died at the scene.
Police arrested the driver of the Mustang, identified by police as Ronald Pierce, 50. He was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence causing injury, gross vehicle manslaughter while intoxicated, reckless driving, reckless driving causing injury and engaging in speed contest, police said.
Two juveniles in the van were taken to the hospital with moderate to major injuries. The crane truck driver was not injured and remained at the scene.
Pierce, who was booked into Kern County Jail Monday morning, is due in court at 3 p.m. Tuesday. His bail was set at more than $30,000.
Criticism has recently mounted from residents throughout the city and particularly in areas with long, wide straightaways such as Gosford Road, Ming Avenue and Ashe Road, over a perceived increase in street racing and parking-lot gatherings that some believe promote street racing. Bakersfield police have asked for the public's help in reporting such activities, an appeal that has only intensified criticism.
"I have been calling for over three years now," Susanna Gardner wrote in an email to The Californian last Thursday, three days before the fatal crash. "(I have placed) security calls, I have submitted detailed online reports, I have spoken to the many different offices and specifically the traffic division.
"We have children having to go to school (every weekday) morning, people having to go to work. It is so loud that you cannot even make a phone call. This has been going on for over three years at this schedule, not counting the added weekend stints."
"If the status quo remains as it has been for these past years then there will be more Ming and Old River road (wrecks)," reader Joe Cooper wrote Monday morning.
Bakersfield City Councilman Bruce Freeman, in whose ward the crash occurred, said Bakersfield police have been in ongoing discussions with property owners over the issue. Monday afternoon, Freeman said, he spoke with Castle & Cooke executives about the racing issue and the company's Gosford Village shopping center, which some racers seem to have adopted as a staging area.
"(Castle & Cooke) said they had been consulting with police and determined that the best solution for shopping center owners is to put in speed bumps, which they plan to do, as was done at The Marketplace years ago" with success, said Freeman, under whose watch as CEO in the late 1990s and early 2000s Castle & Cooke Homes developed The Marketplace and later the Seven Oaks neighborhood.
"Apparently, these speeding groups have lookouts and methods of communication that instantaneously announce locations specifically to fool police," Freeman said. "I have been in contact with the police even today. They have already conducted additional rotations on weekend nights. They are all over this. ... This is a serious criminal activity and (we) want the book thrown at the perpetrators. One thing the police keep stressing is they need as much information from the public as possible to help solve this; eyes and ears everywhere."
The incident hits the Bakersfield Police Department at a particularly challenging time. Last week BPD Chief Lyle Martin announced his pending resignation after three years in the top post to take a job in the District Attorney's office.
Martin released a statement Monday afternoon declaring the department's resolve.
"We will continue our efforts to stop the public from engaging in illegal street racing activity," he wrote in a prepared statement. "The Bakersfield Police Department will remain diligent in educating the public through continuous enforcement operations, as well as partnering with local, state and federal agencies to attempt to prevent these incidents from occurring."
Martin said BPD conducted overtime traffic enforcement on Nov. 22-23 in the southwest areas of Bakersfield "where we have received the majority of complaints." BPD issued nine citations, impounded four vehicles, arrested four for driving under the influence (one), parole violation (one) and driving while unlicensed (two).
Martin said BPD would partner with the California Highway Patrol "in the immediate future" to more effectively fight street racing and "work hand in hand with the district attorney’s office to prosecute those involved to the fullest extent of the law."
Sunday's fatal crash inspired the creation of an online petition demanding that the city act more forcefully to put an end to street racing.
The petition, posted at petitions.moveon.org, asks signers to "join us to tell city of Bakersfield elected officials and our police department that nightly street racing in SW Bakersfield has to stop! Do not allow their silence to be acceptable!"
"Where is the response from our city leaders? Why can't city leaders work collaboratively with businesses and shopping center owners to put in preventive measures? ... How many innocent people will be killed? Waiting for new police cadets via Measure N funds is not an acceptable answer," wrote the petition's author, Susan Houghton, who lives a short distance from the scene of Sunday's wreck.
"I hear the sirens daily," wrote petition-signer Ken Schmitz. "Please do something before there is another fatality!"