California Firefighter Mourned a Year Later

Mario Cunha first met Jesse Casillas while they were showing off their customized Honda Civics at local car shows almost 15 years ago.

What's more, the licensing issue would be moot if lawmen in California enforced federal immigration laws, he said.

"What it boils down to is that (Zarco) should not have been in California in the first place," Spence said.

Spence's organization earlier this year attempted to qualify a statewide initiative for the November ballot that would have asked voters to support a law denying immigrants driver's licenses and other government benefits. The initiative died because the organization was unable to collect enough signatures.

"The real issue is that driver's licenses reward illegal aliens... and create a magnet to have more illegal aliens come here," Spence said. "Citizens who are here legally bear the cost of those services."

The California Republican Assembly, a 70-year-old group not affiliated with the state Assembly, promotes strong enforcement of immigration laws, saying that local lawmen should go after illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them.

"Illegal immigrants put pressure on the lowest scale and employers exploit that," Spence said. "Cheap labor stifles innovation to use technology and other methods that can make operations more efficient. Cheap labor is a crutch to business."

After her car struck Cunha, Zarco drove on. Her attorney said she was confused, panicked, unaware of what was happening.

A few minutes after the accident, Zarco pulled her vehicle off the highway at the Soledad Prison exit. She stopped the car and sat for at least 15 minutes. The impact of the accident had shattered her windshield and pieces of Cunha's "turnout" jacket were wedged in the cracks. Zarco then made a decision that ultimately led to her prison term: She started to drive home instead of returning to the scene of the accident.

After her arrest, she told investigators she wasn't sure what happened, but that she was scared. She felt the impact and saw her broken windshield, but she told investigators she thought she had struck a highway cone.

Martinez, Zarco's attorney, described his client as an uneducated and unsophisticated woman who was in a state of shock after her car struck Cunha.

Martinez also argued that, because of conditions on the roadway on the day of the accident, even a licensed and trained driver could have been involved in the accident. He noted that Zarco had been driving in California for about seven years without receiving so much as a traffic citation.

In Zarco's defense, Martinez found other drivers who encountered the scene off the side of Highway 101 on the late afternoon of March 13, 2004. They say they were also confused by what they encountered. The CHP officer was off the side of the road, but she was not trying to slow traffic. The lane nearest to the burning vehicle was still open.

The other motorists say the smoke from the fire suddenly intensified, the wind shifted. They were suddenly enveloped by the smoke and could feel the blast of hot air. One of those motorists, a nurse from the San Francisco Bay Area, testified last week that she panicked and was afraid she would strike the firetruck.

She felt her vehicle jump as she ran over a fire hose. But while she was trying to slow down, a firefighter suddenly appeared through the smoke, to her right, and pounded on her hood, motioning her to move along.

"I was just panicky," said the nurse, Anquanetta McCall. "I could have been killed. I was terrified."

Deputy District Attorney Bob Burlison concluded that the accident was the result of "a complex set of circumstances" and the scene was one of confusion.

In the end, Judge Terrance Duncan imposed a two-year prison sentence on Zarco. The death was accidental, he said, but the judge also told Zarco on Wednesday that fleeing the scene was "despicable."

Coincidentally, while Zarco was being sentenced Wednesday in one Salinas courtroom, a woman in the courtroom next door was sentenced to 270 days in jail for felony drunken driving following an incident involving emergency personnel in Monterey last July.