Police: Speed, alcohol led to fatal crash involving missing women
WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The Wilmington Police Department has released more information about a fatal crash involving two missing women.
On April 19, Wilmington Police were called to 376 S. Kerr Avenue in reference to two missing women. According to WPD, the women’s roommate stated they were last seen on the night of April 15, and that she was under the impression you could not report missing persons until 72 hours had elapsed.
A missing persons report was filed for Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera.
A search of the apartment revealed the women had left all of their property in the home, including Escalera’s cell phone. They had also ordered food, which was discovered outside their door the following morning. Police say all signs seemed to indicate the couple intended to return home that night.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the Wilmington police reached out and
received assistance from numerous area law enforcement agencies, and SABLE helicopter and Marine 1 boat were utilized to search broad areas of interest in an effort to find the women’s missing Dodge Dart.
These searches were focused in the area of their Kerr Avenue apartment.
WPD says detectives interviewed family members, friends, co-workers, and past relations, which involved more than 1,600 man hours, numerous phone and in-person interviews, and more than 100 tips from across the United States and internationally.
Police searched both women’s social media pages and phone records, as well as Escalera’s abandoned cell phone. At the same time, the department received false leads, including a text from someone demanding money and claiming they had kidnapped the couple.
On May 4, police discovered a 911 call from the night of April 15 in which the caller stated he witnessed a car traveling at a high rate of speed, running through a stop sign, and crashing near the intersection of River Road and Independence — nearly 6.5 miles from the women’s apartment.
“He told dispatchers he saw a car speeding past him, going at a high rate of speed, running a stop sign,” Wilmington Police Deputy Chief Ben Kennedy said. “Then he looked in his passenger side rear view mirror and saw the car hitting a wall and then crashing into the wooded area.”
When police arrived on scene around 3 p.m. that afternoon, there were no obvious signs of a wreck. There were no broken limbs, no skid marks, and no debris. Police say the only evidence of the crash was a faint tire imprint near the curb, as well as scuff marks on the curb itself.
“There were no broken limbs, no skid marks and no debris,” Wilmington Police Deputy Chief Alex Sotelo said. “The only evidence of the crash was a faint tire imprint near the curb, as well as scuff marks on the curb itself.”
The Dodge Dart was hidden in an area of thick vegetation, partially submerged in a swamp with only a small section of the roof visible from up above. WPD officers had to use a machete to cut a path to the vehicle.
In addition, a tow truck was called to remove it, which created the tire tracks, broken limbs, and other obvious disturbances visible in photos taken at the scene after May 4.
Once the car was in the open, police report two bodies were visible inside — both significantly decomposed.
They were taken for an autopsy, and police began a traffic investigation.
Now that the investigation has been completed, WPD says say alcohol and speed were major factors in the wreck.
Police believe the women were traveling west on Independence Boulevard, between 102 and 103 mph, when they hit the curb to the left of the Watermark Marina entrance and went airborne.
“The ground slopes down in that area, which put the Dodge Dart 20 feet above ground level as it continued forward between the trees, traveling between 97 and 101mph,” poice wrote in a news release. “It then hit the ground 115 feet away from the road and skidded forward until it collided with a tree 150 feet off the roadway.”
This crash happened in the blink of an eye, police say. From the time the vehicle hit the curb to the time of the collision, only 0.99 seconds elapsed.
“Data from the car’s computer shows the driver hit the brake at the same moment the vehicle struck the curb, which explains the lack of skid marks,” Sotelo said. “The car battery broke in half on impact, shutting off any lights or any sounds that could’ve alerted first responders to the crash.”
In addition, thick vegetation at the back of the car fully covered the taillights and prevented any reflection under a searchlight.
Several open, empty beer bottles were discovered in the car, and police say investigators were able to determine the women purchased a 12 pack of beer from a convenience store at 10:49 p.m., roughly one hour prior to the crash.
Surveillance photos also show one of the women holding a beer bottle as they exited their apartment around 9 p.m. that night.
Due to the level of decomposition, it is unlikely that a toxicology report will yield results, but based on this evidence, WPD says alcohol played a large role in the crash.
Using dental records and visible tattoos, the medical examiner has identified Mayorga as the driver and Escalera as the passenger. Police confirm the cause of death for both women has been ruled the result of traumatic head and chest injuries sustained in the crash.
At approximately 11:54 p.m. on April 15, a call came into the 911 center from a caller who was driving east down Independence Boulevard away from River Road.
He told dispatchers he saw a car pass him going at a high rate of speed and run a stop sign. He then looked in the passenger’s side rear view mirror and saw the car hitting a wall and crashing into a wooded area. The caller told dispatch that he was not from the area and was unsure where he was.
At that same time, WPD says officers were in the area responding to an armed robbery and were looking for the suspect when they noticed the call for the crash was pending and dispatched themselves to the call. They arrived on scene along with the Wilmington Fire Department and New Hanover Regional Medical Center EMS. The caller remained on the scene and spoke with emergency responders about what he saw. When they begin to inspect the area for damage they found no skid marks, the wall had not been damaged and there was no damage to the trees or brush in the area.
Fire personnel used the lights on the fire truck to illuminate the area, police say. Officers were directed to expand their search and drive down opposite ends of River Road. There were a total of nine emergency responders at the scene as well as the caller who aided in the search.
“During this time, a second armed robbery call went out on the radio, and then a Shotspotter call was dispatched minutes later, which turned into a homicide,” Kennedy said. “The officers on scene left the area to respond to those calls.”
EMS and fire left the scene a few minutes later. Police say emergency personnel spent a total of about eight minutes on the scene before they left. In that time, WPD reports no lights were seen and there was no smoke or noise coming from the crash site.
All of this information was shared through a pre-recorded news conference which was emailed out to news outlets.
Some questions remain unanswered, but police indicated they will not be accepting follow-up questions, and the case is closed.
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