Two newspaper carriers died Tuesday morning after their van was rear-ended and forced into the path of an oncoming car in Victor.
Juan Jesus Porras, 36, of Stockton, died at the scene of the 5:26 a.m. crash on Highway 12 and Kennison Lane, east of Highway 99. Brenda Rodriguez, 40, of Lodi, was taken by ambulance to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The two were traveling east in a 1989 Dodge Caravan carrying Lodi News-Sentinel, and Stockton Record newspapers. Rodriguez had slowed to turn left onto northbound Kennison Lane, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Adrian Quintero.
John D. Bender, 25, of Stockton, was driving a paving company's 2000 Ford F-250 on his way to work behind the van, according to the CHP. Bender took his eyes off the road to reach for an inhaler on the floorboard, then looked up and saw the van in front of him, the CHP said.
Bender struck the van's right rear end, causing it to spin into the westbound lane, Quintero said.
A westbound 2004 Ford Focus, driven by Cody G. Martens, 30, of Lockeford, hit the van head-on, causing it to roll over, Quintero said.
Both Rodriguez and Porras were thrown from the rear of the van. They were not wearing seat belts, but California's vehicle code allows newspaper carriers, postal workers and trash collectors to not wear them while on their normal routes.
Martens, who was on his way to work in Galt, had a large laceration on his knee and was taken to Lodi Memorial Hospital by ambulance. Bender was not injured.
Both Bender and Martens were wearing seat belts, and there was no sign of drug or alcohol involvement, Quintero said.
The crash shook circulation employees at the News-Sentinel, who knew Rodriguez well because she had previously been a carrier for at least half a dozen years and was married to someone in the circulation department.
"Everybody knew and loved her," Circulation Manager Gary Greider said.
Porras was one of roughly 175 independent contractors who deliver the News-Sentinel, and he had been delivering the paper for nearly four years, Greider said.
"He's been just a wonderful carrier for us," Greider said.
The Record's circulation director did not return a call Tuesday.
Rodriguez no longer delivered papers for the News-Sentinel but had apparently agreed to help Porras due to a problem with his vehicle.
When she had been a carrier, Rodriguez was known for her good work, including making sure newspapers actually landed at front doors.
Long-term News-Sentinel reader John Kindseth was so pleased that he'd leave her a tip each month on a tripod he set up in his driveway. He'd also occasionally leave them a few groceries, Kindseth said.
Memorial funds were being established Tuesday but had not been finalized.
The crash is expected to remain under investigation for some time.
The van did not appear to have had a turn signal on, CHP investigators said, but they said Bender was still at fault because he failed to stop for the vehicle in front of him. Once completed, the case is expected to be sent to the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office for consideration of charges.