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Memorial to Fresno County Sheriff Deputy
Joshua Clyde Lancaster

The Fresno Bee

 

A black band crossing his badge for the third time in less than two years, Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce struggled to talk Thursday about another deputy killed on duty.

"We lost another member of our family," Pierce said hours after detective Joshua Clyde Lancaster was killed when his unmarked car was hit broadside by a speeding stolen car being chased by Sanger police.

Lancaster, who turned 27 this month, died a few minutes after midnight Thursday at Adams and Maple avenues, about three miles west of Fowler and seven miles south of Fresno.

A 17-year-old girl riding in the stolen car died about three hours later at University Medical Center. The crash also claimed her unborn baby.

The name of the Sanger girl was not made public Thursday pending notification of relatives.

Augustine Alejandro Zapata, 19, of Sanger, the driver of the stolen car, suffered major injuries and was reported in fair condition Thursday evening at UMC.

He was booked by proxy into Fresno County Jail on suspicion of three counts of murder as well as evading arrest, driving a stolen vehicle, speeding and other traffic violations.

He also was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping—the alleged victim in a May 6 case was the 17-year-old passenger who was killed, officials said.

Zapata's mother, Juana Zapata, said the 17-year-old was her son's girlfriend of about six months. Her son was the father of the girl's unborn baby, she said.

Zapata is believed to have been traveling about 90 mph when the stolen car hit Lancaster's vehicle on the driver's side.

Lancaster and his wife, Heather, 23, were planning to move Thursday to a new home in Clovis from the apartment they shared near California State University, Fresno.

Pierce said the apartment was filled with packed moving boxes when he and other deputies notified Heather Lancaster about her husband's death.

Heather Lancaster, a teacher at Viking Elementary, received a layoff notice this week, said her uncle, Jim Lusk, who works for the Fresno Police Department.

Heather was in shock Thursday night, less than 24 hours after learning that her husband was dead, Lusk said.

"She is having a difficult time accepting the fact that Josh isn't coming home," Lusk said.

Pierce said Lancaster did not know of and was not involved in the pursuit; Sanger police hadn't told the Sheriff's Department of the chase. Pierce said he did not know why.

Pierce, stressing that he did not have all of the details about the chase, said the investigation continues and many questions remain.

He said Sanger police told him that two officers, assisted by a CHP helicopter, were chasing Zapata when the crash occurred.

The officers\a sergeant and a former police academy classmate of Lancaster's\were chasing the stolen car west on Adams when Lancaster, southbound on Maple, apparently stopped for a stop sign at Adams and then pulled into the intersection,

Pierce said. Lancaster was on duty at the time, investigating a string of robberies.

The intersection is surrounded by vineyards, and Pierce said he did not know whether Lancaster saw the stolen car approach.

He also said he did not know whether the stolen car had its headlights on or whether the Sanger police vehicles were running with emergency lights and sirens on.

Pierce said he was told the chase began when Sanger police saw the stolen car, but he was not sure where or at what time.

Thursday morning, deputies helped move Heather Lancaster into the new house where she and her husband had planned to settle. Later in the afternoon, deputies gathered at the home, installing ceiling fans and a garage door opener.

"This has been quite an ordeal; however, the Sheriff's Department has been fantastic," Lusk said.

The couple closed escrow on the house in a new development a few days ago. Joshua Lancaster's two Harley-Davidson motorcycles were propped in a corner of the garage, not far from drawers filled with tools.

"That was his big passion, the Harleys\the Harleys and his wife," said deputy Scott Plann, 25, who attended the sheriff's academy with Lancaster. The two also worked the late shift together during parts of the past two years.

 

"He was just looking forward to getting into a house with Heather and having his own garage where he could tinker around with his bikes."

Lancaster often joked with other deputies and helped everyone enjoy the job a little more, Plann said.

"He liked to have a good time while he was working. He was a good, fun-loving guy."

Juan Espinoza, a field training officer, said Lancaster also was a dedicated deputy.

"He put endless hours into the robbery/burglary unit," said Espinoza, 37. "He was a hard worker, and Josh was pretty much a happy guy all the time. He always brought a smile to everyone's face."

Lancaster, who grew up in Bakersfield, joined the department on April 16, 2001.

He went to college in Bakersfield, where he earned his associate's degree. He also attended Fresno State, where he majored in criminology and met Heather, who grew up in Fresno.

Before becoming a deputy, Joshua Lancaster worked as an investigator for the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.

Pierce described Lancaster as "a shining star" in the department who loved his job and never failed to help other officers.

"People like Josh believe they can make difference," he said.

The Sheriff's Department and members of Lancaster's family are making funeral arrangements.

Last year, on May 19, Deputy Dennis Phelps, 47, was shot to death while checking a suspicious vehicle north of Clovis.

And in August 2001, Deputy Erik Telen, 26, was fatally shot while investigating a break-in in the mountain community of Dunlap, east of Fresno.

Pierce, who wrote the department's policy on pursuits when he was a captain under former Sheriff Steve Magarian, said very few pursuits can be justified if public safety is put at risk.

All pursuits are different, he said, and that is why departmental policy calls for a supervisor to monitor all pursuits and decide whether to continue or cancel.

Pierce said he was confident that Klose, a former sheriff's sergeant, would conduct a thorough investigation. "He's a professional," Pierce said.

The Sanger department had at least one previous run-in with Zapata.

Court records show that on Aug. 12, 2002, he was charged with evading arrest, vehicle theft and obstructing a police officer. Two weeks later, he pleaded guilty to evading arrest, and the two other charges were dropped. Previous charges of possession of drug paraphernalia and giving false identification to police officers also were dismissed.

He was sentenced in January to 36 months of probation and ordered to serve 30 days in jail, beginning on March 7.

Juana Zapata, the teen's 47-year-old mother, said her son, the youngest of five children, doesn't live with her. She said she didn't know where he was going at the time of the crash.

"For her, he was a good son," said Mayra Carrizales, a family friend who translated for the Spanish-speaking mother. "Maybe he was in trouble on the street, but not in her house."

The mother said her son attended continuation school but didn't graduate. He washed cars for a living but wanted to get another job and a house for his girlfriend and future baby.

The girlfriend had been living with Augustine Zapata, who was renting a room, the mother said.

Carrizales, 24, didn't know the girlfriend well but said she seemed nice and was excited to have her baby.

Juana Zapata, with tears welling in her eyes, said she was concerned about her injured son. Hospital officials, she said, told her little about his condition.

The mother said her son would not intentionally hurt someone.

"She's suffering for the family of the girlfriend and the [officer]," Carrizales said.

Flags at the state Capitol were lowered to half-staff Thursday and will remain there through Lancaster's funeral, Gov. Davis announced.

"This is a dreadful tragedy and a great loss. Sharon [Davis' wife] and I send our heartfelt condolences," Davis said. "I am asking all Californians to keep detective Lancaster and his family in their prayers."

Staff writers Michael Baker and Donald E. Coleman contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at lgalvan@fresnobee.com, mleedy@fresnobee.com jfitzenberger@fresnobee.com or 441-6330

 

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