Deputy's widow sues city of Sanger

Woman blames police for husband's death.

By Michael Baker

Circa 2003 -- The widow of a Fresno County sheriff's deputy, killed when his unmarked car was broadsided by a man being chased by Sanger police, filed a multimillion-dollar claim Tuesday against Sanger.

Joshua Clyde Lancaster died after his sheriff's car was struck by a vehicle being driven by 19-year-old Agustine Zapata.Heather Lancaster said the decision to file the claim came after months of talking with friends and prayer. But one thing swayed her to take action: Sanger police never apologized. "Not a card of condolence, not a phone call," she said.

"Even the president sent a letter. ... Sanger has not said, 'We're sorry.' That is an immense slap in the face."

Sanger City Attorney David Weiland said the Police Department's policies were thoroughly reviewed after the crash May 29, but that it would be inappropriate to comment on the claim's merits. He did note how sad the events were.

"It's a tragic situation," he said. "It's just one of those things that just breaks your heart."
Such a claim filed with a government agency is usually a precursor to a Superior Court lawsuit. Sanger has 45 days to review the claim. If the city does not act or rejects the claim, then Heather Lancaster will have six months to file a lawsuit. Lancaster's attorney, Rick Berman, said that while his client's loss can't really be measured, he expects the loss in earnings 
from her husband's death to total $5 million to $6 million. An exact amount for damages is not listed in the claim.
The emotional damage is immeasurable, Lancaster said, as she sat wearing her wedding ring and addressing the news media.

"I tried once or twice to put it on the other hand," she said of the diamond ring, "but it just didn't feel right."

Heather, 24, and Joshua Lancaster, 27, were married for about 13 months before he died. They met when she was 18 and a freshman from Bakersfield at California State University, Fresno. 

"He was an awesome person, so full of life," she said ofher husband. "Now, I just try to take it minute by minute,
day by day. Some days are good. Most days are not good." 
Berman said Heather Lancaster's pain stems from a chase and crash that never should have happened.

"Joshua Lancaster is dead because the Sanger Police Department started this chase," he said. "This was a needless chase. This was a small-time, local guy." Details of the accident were presented during a September hearing in Zapata's murder case. Officers with the California Highway Patrol, Sanger Police Department and Fresno County testified duringthe hearing to the following details:

Joshua Lancaster was just more than halfway through the intersection of Maple and Adams avenues when a Hyundai Elantra driven by Zapata and carrying passenger Lorena Rodriguez, who was pregnant, approached at 104 mph. Police had begun chasing Zapata about 10 minutes earlier when an officer recognized the vehicle as one reported stolen.

The chase left Sanger, sped through north Fowler and ended on the other side of Freeway 99 with the crash at Maple Avenue shortly after midnight.

Lancaster, who was on duty, had never received any sort of radio communication that the chase was approaching.

Sanger police used a radio frequency not available on sheriff's radios. Zapata slammed into the side of Lancaster's vehicle. Lancaster was dead at the scene of head and chest injuries. Rodriguez died three hours later at University Medical Center. Her fetus could not be saved.

Zapata has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder and is awaiting his next court hearing Jan. 22.

Berman said Sanger police should have called off the chase and at least tried to notify other agencies. Sanger police didn't want to notify the Sheriff's Department about the chase in its jurisdiction because they knew they would want it called off, Berman said.

Which is exactly what should have happened, he said: "The public was only endangered by this guy when police started to chase him."

Heather Lancaster is hoping her claim will help change policy.

"I obviously can't bring Josh back," she said. "My hope is that maybe people will start discussing the policy of pursuits.

" In order to validate Josh, I have to do something to make a positive change."

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6465.