SAN DIEGO – Investigators searched Monday for a second motorist after determining a suspected drunken driver whose car slammed into a group of motorcyclists, killing five people and injuring five others, was not at fault for the Imperial County crash, authorities said.
Carlos Ramirez Bobadilla, 36, of Mexicali, Mexico, was arrested Saturday at a hospital for investigation of misdemeanor drunken driving, but he was not booked into a jail. He was technically released from custody on Sunday, although he remained hospitalized in San Diego with a fractured head and leg and a scalp laceration, California Highway Patrol Officer DeAnn Goudie said.
"He was coming out of surgery and an officer thought he smelled a faint odor of alcohol on his person" about five hours after the crash, Goudie said. "He was never physically booked and handcuffed. He was just in his hospital bed."
Ramirez still might face DUI charges if tests determine his blood-alcohol level exceeded the legal limit, but he was not considered at fault for the deadly crash, Goudie said.
Investigators planned to check surveillance video at a nearby border crossing to see if the driver of a gold Honda Civic believed responsible for the crash fled into Mexico, Goudie said.
The driver was trying to pass the line of motorcycles on two-lane, state Route 98 about 80 miles east of San Diego but lacked clearance to get back into the right lane and wound up driving head-on toward Ramirez, Goudie said.
Ramirez's white Dodge Avenger veered onto the right shoulder but he over-corrected to the left and smashed into the motorcycle group head-on, Goudie said.
"He was just trying to avoid (the other car). It's not his fault," she said.
Carl Smith, president of the Lakeside-based Saddletramps Motorcycle Club, also said he didn't hold Ramirez responsible.
"He's a victim also," Smith said.
The crash occurred as Smith led a dozen motorcycles carrying 21 riders on a desert outing for the club's 10th anniversary.
"We were on a nice, leisurely ride," Smith said. "A guy in a gold Civic passed us, probably in excess of 100 mph. The white Avenger ... panicked, hit his brakes, lost control."
Smith said he watched in his rearview mirror as the Avenger struck the middle of the pack.
One bike carrying a couple "was 10 feet in the air, fully engulfed in flames," he said. "It looked like a bomb went off."
The driver of the Civic pulled back in front of the motorcyclists and briefly hit his brakes but kept on going after seeing the accident, Smith said.
No one got the California license plate number of the Honda. Smith said he thought about chasing the fleeing driver but instead hit the brakes and made a U-turn to help his friends.
Smith gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation to one woman before she died. There was no hope for others, some of whom were dismembered, he said.
Three riders were seriously injured and expected to survive while two had less serious injuries, he said.
"It seemed like an eternity" before paramedics reached the remote Imperial Valley site, said Smith, who was later told the first ambulance arrived in 15 minutes.
Ramirez's speedometer was found stuck at 60 mph, 5 mph below the speed limit, Goudie said.
The accident killed Ramirez's passenger, 31-year-old Ana Lilia Gonzalez of Mexicali, Mexico. Four motorcycle riders also died. They were identified as George William Miller, 57, of Ramona; Tonya Beth Trayer, 37, of El Cajon; Lance Allen Heath, 43, of Alpine; and his wife, Amy Heath, 36, of Alpine.
Five motorcyclists were injured.
Smith said the most seriously hurt was Tonya Trayer's husband, Wilson Trayer, 39. He was in a coma after suffering a broken jaw, crushed pelvis, broken leg, spinal and other injuries.
Melanie Barnes, 46, of San Diego suffered a crushed pelvis and was in a medically induced coma as doctors tried to reduce swelling from a brain hemorrhage, Smith said.
Her husband, William Barnes, 57, suffered a punctured lung, broken hip and broken ankle but was alert and doing well, Smith said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Updates with quotes, adds conditions of injured. Corrects references to Ramirez, instead of Bobadilla, per Mexican usage.)