Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk said that the driver, Larry Dale Duke of Ceres, has not been arrested and most likely won't face any possible charges until next week, once the investigation completes. De Werk said police are interviewing 35 witnesses, but continue to look for more reliable on-the-scene witnesses.
"There are a lot of rumors, disinformation, misinformation, innuendos and false assumptions that are being treated as fact," de Werk said at a news conference Thursday. "This complicates and delays our ongoing investigation."
The driver struck the students as they walked to Mae Hensley Junior High around 9 a.m. Wednesday. The victims were all 13- and 14-year-old girls.
Witnesses told investigators that Duke ran a stop sign in his raised Chevrolet pickup and dragged one girl under the vehicle before stopping. Other witnesses said Duke, 45, was either on a cell phone or wearing earphones.
In California, the law prohibits drivers from using a handheld wireless telephone while driving. Drivers are also barred from wearing a headset or earplugs covering both ears.
"He ran over one of them like a speed bump," Nikalas Matthews, who saw the crash, told the Ceres Courier newspaper. "You could tell he wasn't paying attention at all."
But Duke denied that he had been wearing earphones in an interview with KXTL-TV on Wednesday night. And de Werk said police found no earphones at the scene and no evidence Duke had used them. Police did find a cell phone, he said, but there was no indication Duke was talking on the phone when he hit the girls, he said.
Duke said he didn't know how the crash happened, but said he might have fallen asleep at the wheel due to a medical condition. Police could not confirm or deny whether Duke might have sleep apnea.
"I'm so sorry this happened," Duke told KXTL-TV. "I didn't mean for it to happen."
Duke could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Authorities have not released the name of the girl who died at the scene, but family and friends identified her as 13-year-old Danielle Tarancon-Leon.
The other victims' injuries ranged from minor to serious, police said. Eighth grader Nancy Zavala, the victim who was transported to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento by a Medi-flight helicopter, was listed in fair condition Thursday, according to hospital officials.
On Wednesday night, about 200 people gathered for a vigil at a nearby park for the victims. Family and friends are planning a candlelight vigil for Tarancon-Leon on Thursday evening and a mass on Friday.
"She was just a loving, spunky, fun, caring girl," Danielle's grandmother Trinidad Tarancon told the Modesto Bee. "It's overwhelming to see the crowd of people here that cared about her and are showing their love for her."
Police said a similar accident occurred in Ceres Thursday morning, when two boys on their way to Central Valley High School were bumped by a car that did not make a complete stop at a stop sign. No one was injured, and the driver was not arrested.