Santa Paula Relay for Life interrupted
by police pursuit, suspect sought

April 30, 2014
Santa Paula News

Even the best laid plans can go awry as those attending the 13th Annual Relay for Life found when the popular community event to raise money to benefit the American Cancer Society was interrupted Saturday evening by a police pursuit.

The incident started when Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputies tried to conduct a traffic stop near Highway 126 and Hallock Drive at about 9 p.m. April 26, just west of the Limoneira Soccer Fields where the Relay is held.

Although the suspect driver stopped briefly, the driver then hit the accelerator and drove off, starting the pursuit.

According to longtime Relay supporter and organizer Bob Orlando, the suspect vehicle hung a left onto Padre Lane leading to the soccer field only to find the security gate leading to the residential area was closed.

“... so the car turned right into the parking lot at the south end of Field 1,” and traveled along the fence line, through the deep drainage ditch and onto Field 2. 

Orlando said there were vehicles, tents, commodes, equipment and generators that were along the fence line, and “The car maneuvered through this then diverted between two tents, just passing the stage and many people, and on to the east end of our track.”

At that point Orlando said the sheriff’s patrol car “slowed considerably” and turned off its sirens while, “The chase continued through the curve and on the north side of our track; they bounced through the shallower drainage ditch that separates Field 1 and Field 2, along the north fence line.”

The suspect’s vehicle “pulled to the right then drove through the fence at the northwest corner of Field 1, missing a large palm tree, and headed right on Padre Lane and into the orchards,” as more sheriff’s and Santa Paula Police arrived and joined in the pursuit until the suspect crashed through a fence and fled on foot.

The Relay event was put on lockdown as a K-9 Unit and others searched for the suspect, but the only thing found was a gun that the suspect had apparently thrown into a resident’s front yard. The weapon was apparently registered to a law enforcement officer in another county and had been reported stolen. It was found that the car was registered to someone who is on probation although authorities do not believe the suspect driving it was the registered owner.

The suspect might have been injured when he crashed the vehicle, but otherwise there were no other reported injuries. One of the patrol vehicles involved in the chase was damaged during the pursuit through the field.

Event Co-Chair John Marquez posted in Facebook that both the SPPD and VCSD “Did an outstanding job to work with myself and our committee to ensure our event was safe before we could continue. I would like to thank them along with everyone in attendance for their cooperation during a very unusual situation.”

Orlando said the incident took place when “Our Luminaria Ceremony was nearing its end where everyone walks the Luminaria Lap with lit candles.  When the vehicles left our area,” and those in attendance were realizing what had just occurred, the Relay for Life committee members “turned on the lights and requested team captains to gather their teams in the center of the field.

“All was orderly,” said Orlando, “no panic, a few frightened children. Santa Paula Police stayed with us,” and several officers met Marquez and his event Co-Chair Gwen Harrod, and Lorissa Morales, the American Cancer Society event manager.

After confirming that no one was injured and there was no damage other than to the fence the suspect crashed through, the committee and team leaders continued to keep the crowd calm.

“Everyone did a great job in how they reacted to and handled this. Our event and evening continued through the night,” and ended with the Relay for Life closing ceremony Sunday morning without further interruption.  

The incident, said Orlando, proved, “You just can’t plan for everything... “

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