FRESNO -- Two California Highway Patrol officers with ties to the Bay Area were killed in the predawn hours Monday when they slammed into a guardrail and a freeway exit sign as they responded to a crash on Highway 99.
Officers Juan Jaime Gonzalez, 33, and Brian Mitchio Law, 34, who were friends as well as graveyard-shift partners, were the first Fresno CHP officers to die in the line of duty in more than 50 years.
It was also the first time since 1998 that the CHP had lost two officers in the same incident. Gov. Jerry Brown immediately ordered flags at the state Capitol lowered to half-staff.
CHP Capt. Dave Paris said the CHP had received multiple calls about a collision in the northbound lanes of Highway 99 in Kingsburg, about 20 miles south of Fresno, just before 6 a.m.
The officers were responding when they drove right up on the crash scene, which was in the southbound lanes. Gonzalez, who was driving, took evasive action to avoid striking the other people at the scene and struck a guardrail and an exit sign before the Crown Victoria flipped on its roof. The officers died at the scene.
"Everybody that comes on the CHP understands the risks," Paris said. "Their biggest goal is to help their community, to strengthen their community. They understand that they can become a victim of an assault or a traffic collision. It's always in their mind, and they prepare for it."
CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow, in a briefing at the crash scene, said the two officers both graduated from the CHP Academy in 2008. "We lost two fine officers," Farrow said.
After graduation from the academy, Gonzalez went to the CHP's San Jose office to train. Law jumped directly into the overnight shift at the CHP station off Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.
"It really hit home in Oakland," Officer Sean Wilkenfeld said Monday. "A lot of our graveyard guys, they were sleeping during the day and woke up to this."
Law spent five years patrolling the busy urban district stretching north to Richmond and east through the Caldecott Tunnel, beginning his day with the evening rush hour and ending just before the morning commute. Despite the tough hours, Wilkenfeld said, he loved working at night because of the action and the camaraderie of his crew.
Law left the Oakland office a year ago to be closer to his family.
Quiet, athletic and big into sports, especially football, he "was a really standup guy," Wilkenfeld said. "He was legitimately just a great person."
Wilkenfeld was a rookie cop when he first met Law a few years ago, following the same trajectory from the academy to Oakland.
"Brian was always there willing to help me out," Wilkenfeld said. "He was always positive, always happy."
Gonzalez spent two years in San Jose before transferring to Fresno. After Law arrived in Fresno, they teamed up to work the night shift and became the best of friends.
The last CHP officer from the Fresno office to die in the line of duty was Jerry E. Turre, who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while laying flares at an accident scene near Fresno on April 21, 1962.
At the Fresno CHP office, flags were lowered to half-staff, and officers struggled to cope with the loss.
"A lot of the officers are drained," said CHP spokesman Axel Reyes. "Officers are having a tough time."
Reyes said the initial call came in about 5:55 a.m., and dispatchers received the call about the officers' crash about 6:05 a.m. The crash happened in the predawn darkness, but there was no fog at the time, the CHP said.
"We're not sure exactly what happened in the first collision, but it appears there were two or three vehicles involved," Reyes added. A white pickup truck with major front-end damage faced north in the southbound lanes.
Farrow, the CHP commissioner, said the white pickup apparently was the first vehicle in the incident to which the officers were responding. "Prior to our arrival, it appears another vehicle may have hit the truck" and come to rest a short distance to the south.
"We're not sure if the officers ... thought the crash was further down the road," Farrow said. But "as they approached the scene, they lost control of their vehicle. ... They hit the guardrail and ultimately hit the sign."
Reyes said it is standard to have two officers in a car for the graveyard shift.
The CHP's major-accident investigation team spent hours scouring the scene for evidence. Reyes said the wreckage, skid marks and fluid trails were spread out over a couple hundred feet of the freeway, from the center divider to the right shoulder.
The bodies of the two officers remained in the overturned vehicle for more than four hours as investigators continued to measure skid marks and map the debris on the freeway. At one point, firefighters used a saw to cut away a portion of the mangled guardrail that the car hit before it slammed into the sign pole.
A stark white van from the Fresno County coroner's office was accompanied by a caravan of CHP patrol cars with their lights flashing as it headed to Fresno with the two bodies shortly before noon. The crash shut down southbound Highway 99 for hours.
Law, of Clovis, is survived by his wife, Rebecca, and three children, Brandon, Lauren and Samantha. Gonzalez, who lives in the Fresno area, is survived by his mother, Maria, and a sister, Sandra, and was discussing marriage with his girlfriend, Paris said.
Services for the men were pending.
Staff writers Matt O'Brien and Mark Gomez and the Fresno Bee contributed to this report.