Although the three individuals were suspected of an earlier burglary at a high-end boutique in Tustin, authorities said the pursuit involving a sheriff's deputy initially stemmed from a traffic violation.
The pursuing deputy lost sight of the white SUV before it slammed into a tree about 11 p.m. near the intersection of Lyon Street and Chestnut Avenue, police said.
Firefighter-paramedics responded to the scene, where the front passenger was pronounced dead, according to Battalion Chief Colton Ashby of the Orange County Fire Authority.
Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to extricate the driver and one other passenger, who were transported to trauma centers in critical condition. The three suspects were identified only as Los Angeles residents.
Several handbags and other property were located inside the wrecked SUV, police said.
"This was observant police work on the part of that sheriff's deputy," said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department. "He saw at least one of these individuals running to this car by a 7-Eleven. It took off, blacked out."
The deputy became suspicious and attempted to pull over the vehicle, whose lights remained off. The pursuit then ensued.
Investigators "are also trying to figure out: Is this vehicle stolen? Is it part of a crime ring of individuals that's hitting Santa Ana and Tustin?" Bertagna said. "Those are things we're going to be looking into this morning."