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California police officer fired after driving 121 mph before deadly crash

The deputy found primarily responsible for a high-speed fatal crash last year has been fired from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said Eric Fulmer was terminated Wednesday for violating department policy related to the Jan. 9, 2022, crash at River Road and Villa Manucha Road, west of Turlock. Fulmer was a detective driving code-3, with lights and sirens, in a department-issued Nissan Maxima to respond to help a Newman police officer who was fighting with a suspect.

Fulmer was traveling 121 mph on a foggy morning, seconds before he reached the intersection where 21-year-old Saul Betancourt was starting to make a left turn.

Fulmer braked, but it was too late — his vehicle broadsided the driver’s side of Betancourt’s vehicle at 90 mph. Betancourt died at the scene and his girlfriend, in the passenger seat, suffered major injuries. Fulmer also suffered major injuries.

Stanislaus deputy found primarily at fault for fatal crash but DA declines to file charges

Fulmer later returned to work on light duty as he continued recovering from injuries, then eventually went to full duty, Dirkse said.

An internal affairs investigation was launched around December, following the completion of a nearly yearlong investigation by the California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.

Fulmer, a 10-year employee, was put on paid administrative leave in February or March after a disciplinary review board recommended termination, based on the finding of the IA investigation, Dirkse said. That recommendation then went to Dirkse, who “upheld the recommended discipline.”

‘We want our voices heard’

The CHP’s 158-page report, obtained by The Modesto Bee through a public records request, put Fulmer primarily at fault for the collision, “due to the traffic conditions and limited visibility.”

Betancourt’s action, rolling the stop at 6 mph at an intersection where Fulmer had no stop sign, was an associated factor in the collision, according to the report.

Using video from an officer’s body camera and a patrol car camera, the CHP calculated that visibility was between 350 and 425 feet. Using crash reconstruction software, investigators estimated that a safe speed for the limited visibility would have been 64 to 72 mph.

As Betancourt was pulling into the intersection, Fulmer’s Nissan “was approximately 392 feet away and most likely not visible to Betancourt,” according to the CHP report.

The CHP submitted its report to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office in December for consideration of misdemeanor or felony vehicular manslaughter charges against Fulmer.

On Jan. 9, the one-year anniversary of the fatal crash and the deadline for his office to pursue a misdemeanor charge, District Attorney Jeff Laugero sent a memo to the CHP and the Sheriff’s Office saying he would not charge Fulmer with either.

Under California law, authorized emergency vehicles are exempt from certain vehicle code laws, like speeding, when they are being used to respond to an emergency call.

But the law states that the driver is not relieved of “the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway, nor protect him from the consequences of an arbitrary exercise of the privileges.”

In an interview with The Bee about his decision not to file charges, Laugero cited several witness reports that contradicted the CHP’s calculations of visibility that day; Betancourt’s associated actions of rolling the stop sign; and the hurdle of overcoming the emergency vehicle exemption, which has no specific language of what “due regard” is as it relates to speed and weather conditions.

Saul Betancourt pictured in 2021
Saul Betancourt pictured in 2021

Betancourt’s sister Elizabeth Madrigal told The Bee she met with Laugero by phone Tuesday and he explained much of the same reasoning to her, but she said she and her family disagree with his decision and called it “alarming.”

She said Fulmer’s termination is a start toward justice but isn’t enough. “We are not giving up; we want our voices heard,” she said.

Driving code-3

Dirkse would not say what policy violation led to Fulmer’s termination, but there are several policies related to driving code-3 to emergency calls.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office policy on code-3 driving states, “Responding with emergency light(s) and siren does not relieve the deputy of the duty to continue to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.”

It says, “Deputies shall reduce speed at all street intersections” and “check each lane of the intersection to make sure it is safe to proceed” at any uncontrolled intersection.

There are other factors in the policy, like how many deputies should respond to an emergency call (usually only two), who needs to be notified of and authorize a code-3 response, and the type of situations that warrant a code-3 response.

Fulmer has up to 10 days to request arbitration if he wants to try to get his job back. Dirkse did not believe Fulmer had requested that as of Thursday. He said arbitration can take months, referencing one case that took almost a year.

Fulmer and his attorney did not respond to calls from The Bee seeking comment on Thursday.

Betancourt’s parents and his girlfriend, on behalf of herself and the young daughter she shared with Betancourt, filed a lawsuit against Fulmer and the Sheriff’s Office in September for wrongful death and negligence.

Fulmer countersued Betancourt’s estate and Prado’s father, who owned the vehicle Betancourt was driving. His suit alleges negligence and seeks damages for medical costs, general damages, attorney fees and loss of income.

Fulmer’s complaint, filed several months before his termination, says he was “informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that he will ... be prevented from attending to his usual occupation for a period of time in the future, all causing (him) further damages in an amount unknown at this time.”