A man was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after he slammed his car head-on into a group of motorcycle riders celebrating their club's 10th anniversary, killing four motorcyclists and his companion, authorities said Sunday. But they also are looking for another driver who they say played a central role in the crash.
Carlos Ramirez Bobadilla, 36, was arrested when officers smelled alcohol on his breath about five hours after the Saturday crash, said California Highway Patrol Officer DeeAnn Goudie. Ramirez, one of six injured in the collision on a remote desert highway, was recovering from hand fractures at a San Diego hospital, Goudie said.
It was unclear if the driver's alleged alcohol consumption contributed to the collision, Goudie said, but he was arrested on a misdemeanor and is not being held responsible for the deaths based on evidence collected so far. Results of a blood test were pending and not expected for about two weeks, she said.
Authorities were looking for the driver of a gold Honda Civic with California license plates who forced Ramirez off the road when trying to pass the motorcyclists on the undivided two-lane highway east of San Diego. Goudie said she planned to check surveillance video at a nearby border crossing to see if the driver went to Mexico.
Ramirez, of Mexicali, Mexico, swerved his white Dodge Avenger to the right shoulder to avoid the Honda and then overcompensated by swinging left into oncoming traffic, Goudie said. Ramirez's speedometer was found stuck at 60 mph, 5 mph below the speed limit.
"It would have been nice if he had just gone off to the right," she said. "He would have been stuck in the soft sand."
None of the motorcyclists got the license plate number of the Honda driver - described as a man wearing a baseball cap. No one pursued him, choosing to stay behind to attend to their friends.
"I was the first person on scene that had a uniform on," Goudie said. "I was being dragged in every direction by frantic people saying, 'Help this person, help that person."'
The CHP withheld names of the five who died, pending notification of next of kin. They included a husband and wife who were on a motorcycle that was first to be struck.
A man who was driving a motorcycle behind the couple was struck next and died, Goudie said.
Ramirez turned and hit a third motorcycle, killing a woman who was riding on the back and injuring her husband, Wilson Trayer, 39, of Lakeside, Goudie said.
Trayer's motorcycle sliced 18 inches into the front passenger door of the Dodge that Ramirez was driving, killing Ramirez's companion, a 31-year-old Mexicali woman who owned the car, Goudie said.
Carl Smith, president of the Lakeside-based Saddletramps Motorcycle Club, said three riders were seriously injured but expected to survive. Two others had less serious injuries.
William Barnes, 57, of San Diego suffered a punctured lung and broken hip and ankle and his wife, Melanie, 46, broke her pelvis and had a brain hemorrhage, Smith said. Trayer broke his pelvis, ribs, back and jaw, according to his daughter, Sierra.
"It's going to be a long recovery for the three of them," Smith said.
One of the injured - John Philip Lombardo, 55, of Lakeside, whose leg was hit by an ejected motorcyclist - was released from the hospital, Goudie said.
Another rider had her spleen removed, Smith said. Goudie identified her as Kelly Halley, 42, of Santee.
Smith was leading the motorcycles and watched in his rearview mirror as Ramirez turned his sedan into oncoming traffic and struck the middle of the pack. There were 21 riders on about a dozen motorcycles.
"The car was out of control when I went by him. He narrowly missed me and my vice president," said Smith.
Smith doesn't blame Ramirez, despite the allegation that he was driving under the influence. He considers Ramirez a victim because his companion died.
"It looked like he overreacted, but the guy in the Honda Civic was at fault," said Smith, who estimated the Civic was going 95 mph when it passed the motorcycles.
The group met Saturday morning at Smith's Alpine home and had breakfast at the Golden Acorn Casino off Interstate 8 in Boulevard. They planned to spend the night at the Quechan Casino Resort in Winterhaven, near the Arizona state line.
"They were just going on a nice, leisurely ride in the desert because the weather's gorgeous now," Goudie said.
The accident occurred about 1 p.m. Saturday on state Route 98 near the hamlet of Ocotillo, about 80 miles east of San Diego. The curvy road, which hugs the Mexican border, links Mexicali to Interstate 8 and is used by motorists from Southern Californians and Mexico's Baja California state.
Smith said club members are close friends - many in daily contact - who go on long monthly rides and do an annual charity drive for the Boys and Girls Clubs of East (San Diego) County. They plan a blood drive to help the injured riders.