in a Highway 1 construction zone Sunday started because a motorist was speeding, passing illegally and collided with a guardrail, the California Highway Patrol reported.
The identities of those who died—the driver being pursued and the motorcyclist he hit—had not been released as of 9 a.m. Monday.
The driver was in a green Geo Prism heading south on Highway 1. About 4:18 p.m., a CHP officer saw the car weaving between the three lanes at Mar Monte Avenue to pass other vehicles, according to the CHP.
As he crested the hill and headed into Watsonville, the motorist crashed head-on into a Caltrans guardrail that separates northbound and southbound traffic, the CHP reported.
CHP officer Sarah Jackson said the driver likely didn't know he was in the crosshairs of a CHP officer until after that first crash, near Buena Vista Drive, because the officer had been trying to catch up to the speeding motorist.
The motorist made a U-turn across both southbound lanes to continue south. That's when the pursuit started, Jackson said.
"He chased him because he now has two misdemeanor wants," she said.
CHP policy states officers must pursue vehicles that fail to stop when ordered to the side of the road, according to a 2010 Associated Press news story about CHP's review of its statewide pursuit policy after two deadly crashes during police chases in downtown San Jose.
Sunday's high-speed pursuit lasted five miles before it turned deadly.
Highway 1 narrows as it crosses the Pajaro River and heads into Monterey County, where a massive construction project will add an overcrossing at Salinas Road, normally a harrowing left-turn for southbound highway traffic.
Jackson explained that the fleeing motorist veered across a "cone pattern" that blocked the right lane of the highway to pass the 50 mph traffic. He was going about 90 mph.
The officer didn't follow. Instead, he passed through the yielding traffic, according to Jackson.
“He was backing off," Jackson said. "Sometimes if we back off more they’ll slow up just a little bit.”
The officer was about 600 feet back when the Geo Prism side-swiped a Castronville family's sports utility vehicle. One of the three people in the SUV was hurt, according to the CHP.
Then the officer lost sight of the fleeing car and didn't see the second, fatal collision. About a mile south of Salinas Road, he was radioed to turn around because of a crash, Jackson said.
The Geo Prism had swerved into oncoming traffic and hit a northbound motorcycle, sending both vehicles careening down a hillside.
"They were completely off (the road), down an embankment… nothing was visible from the road way so the officer drove right past it," Jackson said.
The driver and the motorcyclist, a 39-year-old Middleton woman riding a BMW bike, both died at the scene.
The Monterey County Coroner is still confirming their identities, Jackson said.
"As soon as the coroner can give us a good, solid ID then maybe we can find out why he was fleeing," she said. "... I don’t know if possibly the car was stolen or he has warrants out for his arrest or his license was suspended … I just don’t know."
The Geo Prism had "paper plates" from a car dealer, which have complicated identifying the man and who owned the vehicle. The car also had a Toyota insignia on the back even though it's a Geo, Jackson said.
The paper plates also prevented the officer from running the car's license plate number during the chase. Had he been able to, the officer could have stopped following the offending car and contacted the driver another time, Jackson explained.
“Discontinuing a pursuit is something we expect the officers to use sound professional judgment to decide," Jackson said,
The officer who is involved in the chase is in the best position to make that decision because of the training they have. Supervisors monitor pursuits, including speed, direction and traffic conditions. Sometimes supervisors call of the pursuit but "90 percent of the time" it's the officer involved who makes that choice, according to Jackson.
“The officer had the reasonable belief if he didn’t stop him, he would drive recklessly and cause a crash," she said about Sunday's pursuit.