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Murder charges stand for fatal crash that killed three
Luis Cruz
Luis Cruz

The Turlock man who investigators say was behind the wheel in a crash that killed three people while out for an evening stroll, will have to stand trial on murder charges.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Rick Distaso found the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office had enough cause to hold Luis Cruz, 29, over for trial on three counts of murder and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and one count of hit and run causing death.

The charges against Cruz stem from a collision on Sept. 6, 2014, that claimed the lives of 4-year-old Brian Flores, his mother Julia Flores, 20, and his grandmother Elena Flores, 47.

After a continuance for a few weeks, testimony resumed Thursday in the preliminary hearing for Cruz. Turlock Police Officer Mike Simbalenko testified he administered a field sobriety test to Cruz and that during the test, Cruz, swayed, lost his balance, was unable to follow some of the instructions, and at times slurred his speech. Cruz failed the field sobriety test and was placed under arrest. His breath test showed a blood alcohol level of .16 and .17, according to Simbalenko.

The Flores family was out for a walk in their neighborhood of Rockwood Avenue shortly before 8 p.m. Sept. 6, 2014, when they were hit by a car. Witnesses said a BMW was speeding in the area and that the driver lost control in the area of Rockwood and Boxwood avenues. The BMW swerved up onto the sidewalk, striking the two women and the young boy. The vehicle then struck a utility box and a stop sign. The car crashed into a birch tree which sent it careening into a home at the corner of Boxwood and Rockwood. The BMW smashed through two bedrooms of the home before coming to a rest. Emily Flores, who was 2 years old at the time, was with her mother, grandmother and brother, but escaped the crash uninjured.

Witnesses saw two men get out of the vehicle and take off running. One man, later identified as Cruz, was apprehended by some of the neighborhood residents when he tripped trying to jump over a fence. The second man, later identified as the passenger Eric Onate, was taken into custody at a house not far from the crash site. He was questioned and released.

Cruz was questioned by police investigators and initially told them it was a man named “Juan” from Merced who was driving the car. He said he let Juan drive because he was too drunk.

He was initially released, but brought back in two days after the crash for additional questioning. The video of his second interview with investigators was included in the preliminary hearing and showed Cruz admitting that the statement he initially gave to investigators about Juan driving was a lie. He said he told them that because he was “scared and didn’t know what to do.”

During the preliminary hearing the prosecution presented DNA evidence that links Cruz to the driver’s side of the BMW involved in the crash.

In closing arguments, Cruz’s defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Marlon Simon said his client was being overcharged by the district attorney’s office. Simon said Cruz did not act with any malice and didn’t “appreciate the risk involved” in driving drunk.

Deputy District Attorney Anthony Colacito, who is prosecuting the case, argued Cruz was aware of the dangers of driving under the influence because he originally told officers he let “Juan” drive because he knew he was too drunk and that it could be dangerous. Colacito also pointed to an arrest in 2007 Cruz had for DUI. Cruz was not convicted on that charge.

Colacito said that Cruz’s actions after the crash, including his fleeing from the scene without checking on anyone and his story about someone else driving, all painted a picture of “a man that just doesn’t care” about his behavior.

Cruz will return to court for a formal arraignment on the charges on Oct. 29. He remains in custody on a $4.5 million bail.