SAN JOSE -- In a case that was shrouded in secrecy for nearly three weeks, authorities have arrested and charged with murder a driver who while fleeing police crashed into and killed two women near San Jose's airport before abandoning his car.
In an odd twist, the defendant is associated with a notoriously violent East Palo Alto street gang and was once targeted in a massive federal indictment cracking down on a drug ring run out of that city.
Danny Darnell Coleman Jr., a 24-year-old East Palo Alto man and former San Jose resident, was arrested Friday afternoon in Union City and charged with murder in the Labor Day collision that killed San Jose residents Carmen Zavala, 63, and Cristina De Leon Castro, 62, after their Toyota Yaris was broadsided by a silver Mercedes-Benz sedan at North First Street and Skyport Drive.
The early morning crash scene was a litany of confusion when the Mercedes driver was nowhere to be found by the time officers arrived. Saturday's arrest announcement by San Jose police was the first time a suspect has been publicly tied to the double-fatal crash.
Zavala and Castro were on their way to work at Mineta San Jose International Airport: Zavala was a cook at Sonoma Chicken Coop, and Castro was a cook at Brioche Doree. At the site of the crash, the remnants of a makeshift memorial endured, beset with candles, a stuffed cat and flowers, including a bouquet emblazoned with "greatest mom."
Because Coleman has been charged with murder, the victims have become the city's 37th and 38th homicide victims this year in San Jose. The total does not include a shooting victim found dead near San Jose State property Sept. 8; San Jose police do not count it in their tally because it was investigated by university police.
Coleman was one of more than two dozen people at the heart of a March 2009 federal indictment targeting a crack-cocaine distribution ring linked to the Taliban street gang, one of a group of rival gangs authorities blamed for a large share of violence in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. He showed up in headlines in July 2009 when he was peripherally part of a police standoff by being in an East Palo Alto house in which a carjacking suspect and fellow alleged gang member had holed up. He was arrested that day in part because of a warrant issued for him after the indictment.
Coleman was one of the more minimally charged defendants in the case. His conspiracy and drug charges were dismissed in 2010.
Labor Day crash
The sequence that led to the Sept. 2 crash -- the 26th deadly car collision this year in San Jose -- began about 3:16 a.m. when two California Highway Patrol officers saw a Mercedes weaving and speeding on northbound Highway 101, the CHP said. The car exited at the Brokaw Road-First Street offramp, and officers followed and switched on their emergency lights at the end of the ramp.
After turning left onto Brokaw, "the vehicle gave the appearance it was going to yield on the right shoulder at Brokaw and First Street," the CHP said. It then suddenly accelerated, sped through a red light and turned left onto North First Street.
The officers decided against pursuing the car and turned off their emergency lights. They waited for the traffic light to turn green, then turned left onto North First Street. While stopped at a left-turn signal at Matrix Boulevard to return to the freeway, they noticed a car with hazard lights blinking about half a mile south on North First.
The CHP officers drove over to investigate and found at the intersection of Skyport Drive that the Mercedes had collided with the Toyota. Castro died at the scene, and Zavala later died at the hospital. The driver, since identified as Coleman, disappeared.
The investigation was headed by San Jose police because it occurred on city streets and because no formal pursuit had been initiated by CHP. In the ensuing days, it was determined that the vehicle was not reported stolen, but no information about the driver was released until Saturday. That's when they announced that on Friday, the department's Covert Response Unit tracked Coleman to Union City and took him into custody about 12:35 p.m.
"After an extensive investigation, we were able to identify the driver of the vehicle that killed the two innocent victims on their way to work," said Lt. Michael Kihmm, homicide unit commander. "The apprehension efforts were complicated and took a while, but the suspect was finally arrested."
Anyone with information about the fatal crash can contact San Jose police at 408-277-5283 or leave a tip with Silicon Valley Crime Stoppers at 408-947-STOP (7867) or with http://svcrimestoppers.org.
Staff writer Mark Emmons contributed to this story. Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.