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Questions, grief follow fatal crash
Ceres police expect to know by week's end if Larry Dale Duke, 45, of Ceres, will face prosecution for running down Mae Hensley Junior High School pedestrians on Wednesday, Feb. 9, killing one and injuring four others.

Duke was driving a raised Chevy pickup southbound on Darwin Avenue at 8:58 a.m. when approaching Fowler Road at Smyrna Park. Police have been trying to piece together exactly what happened but a number of witnesses say Duke failed to stop at the stop sign as it was turning left onto eastbound Fowler Road. The pickup rolled over Danielle Tarancon-Leon, 13, who sustained fatal injuries, and also struck Nancy Zavala, dragging her across the intersection, as well as running over Jessica Garcia, who reportedly sustained a broken hip.

Zavala was rushed to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento by a Medi-flight helicopter which landed in the yard of Mae Hensley Junior High School. Zavala was listed in stable yet critical condition.

Duke's pickup also brushed up against the leg of Danielle's cousin, Alexis DeLeon, who was horrified to witness the death of her cousin.

A fifth victim came forth on Thursday claiming to have been struck but showed no signs of injury.

All the victims are females aged 13 and 14 who attend Mae Hensley.

Numerous witnesses claim that Duke ran through the stop sign. Police are investigating the possibility that Duke did stop but proceeded through the girls anyway, said Sgt. Danny Vierra. He noted that some witness testimony has not matched up to evidence.

"There were no skid marks and no cameras that may have captured what happens so we may never know for sure what happened," Sgt. Vierra told the Courier after a press conference held Thursday afternoon.

Nikalas Matthews was walking down the sidewalk along the park's northern boundary when he heard a "loud boom" and looked up. He said the dark blue Chevy pickup had just blown through the stop sign for southbound Darwin Avenue traffic at Fowler Road as he was making a left to go east and was dragging one of many girls who had been walking westbound across Darwin Avenue. The driver finally stopped on the south side of Fowler Road after hearing screams, said an eyewitness.

"He didn't even stop (at the stop sign)," said Matthews. "He finally stopped and got out and had his earphones on. He didn't even know he was dragging the kid under the car and didn't stop until all the kids were screaming. He ran over one of them like a speed bump. You could tell he wasn't paying attention at all. How could you not see a crowd of 10 kids?"

Vierra said no earphones were found in the pickup or on Duke but that he did have a cell phone in the vehicle.

Duke's medical and driving history have been called into question. Following the accident, Duke was hospitalized for a rapid heartbeat. He told a Fox 40 reporter Rowena Shaddox that he has been experiencing falling asleep during the day for approximately two months. He said he didn't see a doctor about the condition because his insurance was cancelled after he lost his job as a truck driver.

Duke was the driver of a Peterbilt dump truck who ran into the rear of a Ford Expedition on Sept. 17, 2010 while traveling northbound Highway 99 near Faith Home Road overpass. In that incident traffic was slowing down but Duke failed to brake and ended up seriously injuring a seven-year-old Keyes boy, Adrian Orozco, and his parents, Juan and Myra Orozco, 32, and 31 respectively. In the Keyes crash, Duke said he couldn't see well because the sun was in his eyes and had to swerve out of his lane but crashed anyway.

Duke issued a statement to the TV station saying he didn't know what happened in the fatal crash, and expressed remorse to the families of the victims. He also insisted that he wasn't wearing earphones, hadn't been drinking "I'm so sorry this happened. I know it's harder for you guys to sit there and accept anything I'm saying. But I am so sorry it happened. I didn't mean for it to happen."

The horrific crash was hardest felt at Mae Hensley. About half of the students went home the day of the crash and Ceres Unified School District brought in counselors to help students with their grief. A large crowd gathered at the crash site Wednesday evening and a steady stream of mourners have built a roadside memorial with flowers, cards and gifts.

An impromptu car wash was held at a Mitchell Road tattoo parlor to raise funds to help with burial costs.

Former Ceres mayor and state Senator Anthony Cannella, issued a statement expressing "my deepest sympathies to the young woman's friends and family members during this time of sadness. I also extend my best wishes to the other students injured in this morning's accident for a swift and full recovery."