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Investigation Continues Into Kindergartner’s Death

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 07:03:00 PM
Zachary Michael Cruz at school last week.
By Mark Coplan
Zachary Michael Cruz at school last week.

Berkeley police are still investigating the fatal accident of 5-year-old Zachary Cruz, a LeConte Elementary School kindergartner who was struck and killed Friday, Feb. 27, by a contractor’s truck at Warring and Derby streets. 

Authorities said that Zachary’s parents, Frank and Jodie, had left for Ventura Tuesday to be with their family. Funeral services have been scheduled for 12 p.m. Saturday at the Grace Bible Church at 936 West Fifth St. in Oxnard, Calif. 

Zachary will be buried at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park in Ventura. 

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, said Wednesday that the investigation would take some time since investigators were reviewing the diagramming they completed using the Total Station surveying tool and re-examining witness statements “in order to be very exact about the primary collision factor.” 

She said Berkeley police received a 911 call at 1:45 p.m. on Feb. 27 reporting that a young child had been hit by a truck near the Clark Kerr Campus, a residential complex located about six blocks southeast of the UC Berkeley campus. 

According to Kusmiss, police officers arrived on the scene to find a neighbor performing CPR on the boy. Berkeley Fire Department later pronounced him dead at the scene, Kusmiss said. 

Though the parents were notified as quickly as possible, the child’s identity was withheld until extended family could be contacted.  

Police enclosed the boy’s body inside a pop-up tent, a protocol devised, Kusmiss explained, as a method of preserving evidence when a victim is pronounced dead at the scene. 

Kusmiss said the boy was walking southbound on Warring and that the driver might have made an eastbound turn on Derby, stopping when he realized he had struck the child. 

“The driver shared what his path was,” she said, adding that he had cooperated with police officers and that no drugs or alcohol were involved in the accident. 

“We are trying to re-evaluate the witness statements,” Kusmiss said, adding that so far 15 witnesses had come forward to testify, including other children present at the time who were attending a nearby after-school program. 

Other witnesses included residents of the Clark Kerr Campus who were able to see the last part of the accident from their apartment balconies, and several women who said they saw the truck but not the collision. 

“We have a couple of different accounts but it’s slightly early to announce anything,” Kusmiss said. “The officers are interviewing the students.” 

Officers from the Berkeley Police Department’s Fatal Accident Investigation Team (FAIT), who have undergone extensive training to deal with collision incidents, were at the scene investigating the accident along with homicide detectives. 

Officials from both Berkeley Unified School District and UC Berkeley—including district Assistant Superintendent Neil Smith, LeConte Principal Cheryl Wilson and UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof—visited the scene of the accident in the afternoon. 

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan, who arrived at the scene immediately after he heard the news, said Cruz was crossing the intersection at Derby and Warring on his way to a K-2 after-school program. 

Students from LeConte Elementary School, located at 2241 Russell St. in South Berkeley, are taken by school bus to Emerson Elementary School where they are met by after-school program teachers who escort them the remaining block to the Clark Kerr Campus. 

Coplan said that on this particular Friday, Zach was picked up by a school bus from LeConte and dropped off at Emerson. From there he and three other Emerson students were walked by a staff member from the K-2 After-School Center to the center at 2601 Warring St., one of eight centers run by the university’s Early Childhood Education Program, which serves 279 university families. 

“His parents are responsible to designate who will walk him to the after-school program,” Coplan said. “It’s out of the school district’s control at that point.” 

Calls to UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program for comment were directed to Dan Mogulof, the university’s director of communications. 

Mogulof confirmed that although Zach, whose father is a UC Berkeley graduate student, was with a teacher and other students from the after-school program when the accident occurred, it was not clear exactly where the Berkeley Unified bus driver had dropped him off. 

“We don’t know whether it was at Emerson or between Emerson and Clark Kerr [that the bus dropped off Zach], after which at one point he rendezvoused with the teacher and the students,” he said. “There are conflicting accounts of what happened and we are waiting for the final police report.” 

Children 58 to 84 months attend UC’s after-school program in the afternoon, according to the program’s website, where “they enjoy art and free play activities after a rigorous day in the school classroom,” get an afternoon snack, and are able to do their homework and socialize. 

The program, which provides subsidized child care for university families, began as a parent cooperative in 1969 and came under university management in 1973, receiving joint funding for student families from student registration fees and the state Department of Education Child Development Division. 

Mogulof said the staff at the after-school program was distraught about the incident and that university officials, including counseling staff, were at the scene to offer support and assistance to the parents. 

“Our community is deeply saddened and shaken by this loss,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said in a statement. “The Berkeley community sends our thoughts and prayers to the parents, family members, and others affected by this tragic accident.” 

Around 2:30 p.m. on the day of the accident, UC Berkeley students and individuals who lived or worked in the neighborhood started to crowd near Derby and Piedmont Avenue, where police had cordoned the area off with yellow crime scene tape. 

Two college students from the Clark Kerr Campus who did not want their names published complained that the Derby and Warring intersection, which is in a residential neighborhood and gets a lot of traffic from the Caldecott Tunnel, is a dangerous one, especially considering the number of small children in the area. 

The driver of the 2.5-ton white contractor-style truck from Ferguson Welding Services was escorted into a police vehicle by two Berkeley police officers around 3:30 p.m. 

Coplan said that the entire school district was “grieving over the loss of the 5-year-old LeConte student.” 

“Any loss of life is a tragedy, but the loss of a kindergarten child is so hard to accept,” he said in a statement. “His teacher Jeannie Gee, his classmates, and his family knew him in a way that none of us will ever be able to experience.” 

In a letter to LeConte parents, principal Cheryl Wilson described the letter as “one of the most difficult letters I have had to write.”  

Assisted by counselors from the Berkeley Mental Health department, Wilson visited every classroom at LeConte Monday to talk to children and answer their questions. 

Friday’s incident is the second pedestrian collision in less than a month involving a Berkeley kindergartner.  

On Jan. 30, a 6-year-old Malcolm X Elementary School student was hit by a Toyota 4 Runner at the intersection of Ellis Street and Ashby Avenue when she darted into the crosswalk after hearing the school bell ring.  

The girl, who underwent surgery for a broken clavicle and fractured skull, has recovered from her injuries and returned to school Monday. 

Zachary’s family has created a website in his honor,, with a soundtrack consisting of his favorite song, The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” 

Visitors to the site can post comments and donate money to help defray funeral costs. 

The family hopes to hold a memorial service in Berkeley on March 14.