MARTINEZ, Calif. (BCN) - A Contra Costa County jury found today that two girls died at the hands of another in January when their mother's truck was hit by a suspect fleeing a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy in Antioch.
The unanimous verdict came during a coroner's inquest, which is held in the county to determine the cause of death for incidents involving law enforcement officers. Jurors could have also found that the girls had died of natural causes, suicide or by accident.
The verdict has no bearing on civil or criminal liability. In fact, county prosecutors decided months ago that the acts of the suspect, 23-year-old Noe Saucedo, led to the death of the two girls, identified as 4-year-old Lenexy Cardoza and her 2-year-old sister, Camila Cardoza.
Saucedo has been charged with the girls' murder and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 7.
Saucedo was driving a stolen Ford F-250 pickup truck on Jan. 17 in Bay Point when sheriff's Deputy Quentin Valentine spotted it while headed to another call, Valentine testified today.
Valentine had been looking for the truck earlier in the day and provided the license plate number to dispatchers, who confirmed it had been reported stolen. He made a U-turn and followed the truck, including through a McDonald's parking lot and onto state Highway 4.
Valentine testified that he did not turn on his lights and sirens and did not try to pull the driver over as he waited for backup, which he said is department protocol for officer safety.
As the truck approached the Somersville Road exit in Antioch, the driver moved over as if to take the exit. Valentine followed, but then the truck moved back onto the highway and veered off down an embankment. Valentine followed down the embankment.
Valentine then turned on his lights and siren. Seconds later, Saucedo ran a red light at the end of the exit ramp, smashing into another pickup truck driven by the Cardoza girls' mother.
The young sisters were badly injured in the crash and were taken to UCSC Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland. Lenexy died there later that day and Camila died two days later.
Saucedo was arrested. Antioch police Officer Loren Bledsoe testified at today's hearing that Saucedo admitted to investigators he'd stolen the truck by manipulating the ignition with a screwdriver.
Bledsoe said Saucedo told investigators that he had been joyriding in the stolen truck and became nervous when he realized he was being followed by Valentine.
Bledsoe said that Saucedo had missed a court appearance and was also concerned that he may have a warrant for his arrest. At the off-ramp, he said he panicked, and had decided to pull over, but he lost control of the truck and went down the embankment.
According to Bledsoe, Saucedo told investigators he doesn't remember what happened after going down the embankment.
Officer Victor Ruiz, a California Highway Patrol accident investigator, estimated that Saucedo was going at least 50 mph when he broadsided the truck with the two girls. The driver of a third vehicle was injured by flying debris.
Toxicology tests indicate that Saucedo was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the crash.
Saucedo has been arrested a few times, but his criminal history is "not really extensive, it's rather short," sheriff's Deputy William Root said.
His prior arrests include drug offenses, battery and for a stolen vehicle.
Valentine joined the sheriff's office in March 2016. He worked at the West County Detention Facility before joining the patrol division. Since the crash, he has been assigned back to the jail.