Friday, May 20, 2022

In the light of day: Friends of missing women ask why WPD didn’t return to search crash scene the following day

Friends mourn the loss of Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera at a memorial set up last week above a curb where it appears Escalera’s car made contact before landing approximately 150 feet away in a wooded marsh. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Wilmington Police, EMS, and Fire crews were on the scene of a reported high-speed car accident for approximately eight minutes before giving up on a search of a crashed vehicle, according to 911 records.

Nearly three weeks later, two severely decomposed bodies were discovered inside a 2013 Dodge Dart resting in a wooded marsh about 150 feet southwest of the intersection of Independence Boulevard and River Road. 

RELATED: WPD believe missing Wilmington women’s car had ‘extremely high-velocity’ crash the night of their disappearance

Although the Wilmington Police Department has not yet identified the bodies and are awaiting results of an autopsy performed last week, on Tuesday it confirmed the car was registered to Paige Escalera — who along with Stephanie Mayorga was last seen on the night of April 15, the same night of the 911 call, leaving their apartment in the same vehicle. (It is important to note the couple was reported missing to the WPD four days later, on April 19.)

‘Clear all units’

Eight minutes before midnight on Sunday, April 15, a 911 dispatcher received a call from a man who said he witnessed a car that sped through the intersection, failed to turn at a stop sign at the end of Independence Boulevard, and “disappeared inside the trees.”

Wilmington Police and emergency crews arrived on the scene at 11:59 p.m., more than six minutes after the phone call began, according to dispatch recordings and call logs obtained by Port City Daily. At 12:07 a.m., a WPD officer identified as Unit 300 told dispatch, “We are unable to locate any vehicle that appears to be crashed up and down River Road or near the intersections.”

“You can clear all units off this,” the officer said.

A minute later, an EMS unit also reported that no car was found — the last communication recorded on the call log, apparently indicating that no police officers returned after sunrise to examine the scene in daylight. 

Last week the WPD announced that just after 3 p.m. on Monday, May 4, Escalera’s vehicle was found “deep in the woods and covered in vegetation” and believed the car may have been involved in an “extremely high velocity crash.”

“When first responders arrived they met with the caller and searched the area with flashlights,” according to a Tuesday press release from the WPD. “However they were unable to find any sign of a collision and no one with injuries.”

But there was visible evidence of a crash, although more challenging to see at night.

On Wednesday, friends of the engaged couple laid flowers at a cross memorial set up at a curb where it appeared the car made contact before launching into the trees west of River Road. The cross sits above a section of the River Road curb, roughly the width of a sedan, that is visibly damaged: large cracks, missing chunks of broken cement, and scratch marks that may have been caused by the car’s underside steel frame as it made contact.

Cracks, missing chunks of broken cement, and scratch marks on a curb where the vehicle appears to have made contact driving at a high velocity through the intersection of Independence Boulevard and River Road. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The curb damage is on line with a straight trajectory of Independence Boulevard if it continued west instead of ending at River Road. Looking west from the damaged curb toward the thicket, a tunnel of missing vegetation leads to where the car apparently landed; the displaced vegetation could have been caused both by the crash and WPD efforts to retrieve the car.

A narrow tree along this tunnel of damaged trees, approximately 48 feet from the curb, was broken off and splintered about 8 feet from its base. 

Twenty-six feet from a road that leads into the nearby Watermark Marina, car debris at the bottom of a grassy slope could be seen in plain view from the side of the road, sitting just outside the tree line. (All distances were measured and noted at the scene.)

The car appears to have first landed approximately 120 feet from the damaged curb — marked by a rectangular impression in the marsh roughly the size of a sedan, on the same trajectory of Independence Road, the damaged curb, and the broken tree — before colliding with a large tree that was damaged at the bottom of its trunk, still surrounded by plastic car debris and floor mats. Again, some of the debris may have been from the initial crash and some from WPD efforts to secure the car and the as-of-yet unidentified bodies inside. 

There was another rectangular impression 10 feet to the south of the tree, similar in size as the first, littered with more debris, plastic cups, and other items. This seems to be where the car eventually came to rest.

‘This is serious’

An aerial shot taken on Friday shows where the car apparently drove straight through the intersection of River Road (marked with left turn arrows) coming from a diagonal direction from Independence Boulevard (not pictured), before landing approximately 150 feet from the curb. This can be seen where there is a clearing in the woods about 50 feet to the left of the palm trees. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Cairo Al-khidr)

A review of the roughly seven-minute 911 phone call reveals a witness who, although confused by whether or not the car crashed into a nearby wall, clearly communicated that he had seen a car fail to turn at the intersection before disappearing at a high velocity into a wooded area.

The caller repeatedly told dispatch that he had witnessed a serious, high-speed accident:

“I just saw a car driving so fast and smash into the wall … Wow … Listen, this is like really serious. There’s a stop sign, the car didn’t stop at the stop sign and [was] driving so fast. I was seeing it with my back mirror. … This is a serious injury. … This is serious. … There’s a stop sign over here and he didn’t stop. … There’s a stop sign and he drives very fast, and I’m sure, I saw it with my mirror. … But he really drives fast and I saw with my mirror like passing inside the tree. … I saw in my glass mirror the car like disappear inside the tree. … I’m sure what I saw. He drive through [the] stop sign very fast.”

He reported being able to see the accident in the side mirror of a 26-foot Penske truck while driving in the opposite direction along Independence Boulevard.

After parking the truck on the side of the road, he walked back to the intersection while talking to dispatch, according to the recorded conversation. He expressed confusion upon not finding a crashed vehicle, but was able to correctly note the grey color of the car, although he said it happened too fast to be sure.

Listen to the entire 911 phone call below:

Friends angry 911 call was made but no extensive search performed

On Thursday Port City Daily asked the WPD if there were any concerns of whether officers searched the scene thoroughly enough, if there were certain protocols in place to determine how extensive the search of an accident scene should be, and what led to the discovery of the vehicle on May 4.

WPD spokeswoman Linda Thompson said “the investigation is ongoing and we are able to answer all of those questions in the coming week,” but could provide no comments at the time.

Friends who gathered at the cross memorial Wednesday evening expressed anger towards the WPD for not finding the wrecked car after the 911 call. 

Jacqueline Garland met Mayorga when they were students at Ashley High. She said she had last seen Mayorga a few days before she was reported missing. They had both attended a memorial gathering for a mutual friend who had also died after crashing his car into a wooded area, according to Garland.

After walking around the scene of the accident, she wondered why officers didn’t inspect the scene more carefully in daylight.

“If they would have come back and searched the area a little bit more the next morning, they would have been able to see [signs of an accident],” Garland suggested. 

She said that she once lived along River Road, and because the intersection with Independence has no lighting, she could understand if someone failed to break at the stop sign. 

“But this would be the first place that I would search the next day, if there was a call that someone was going fast down Independence. … I’m not even an investigator and I know these things,” she said.

Friends of two women who were reported missing on April 15 inspect a marshy area where one of the woman’s car apparently landed. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends of two women reported missing on April 15 inspect a marshy area where the women’s car apparently landed that night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The group gathered at the memorial to lay flowers beneath a pink and white cross, cars speeding by on River Road. Grappler Pritchard, a car salesman who knew Mayorga for 15 years, spoke about their friendship before leading them in a prayer.

“I talked to her less than a month ago about [Mayorga] coming to buy a car,” Pritchard told the group. “She always had a smile on her face, and seeing that they passed together brought me some peace.”

Bianca Pasquini said she and Mayorga had evacuated Wilmington together during Hurricane Florence. Seeing the scene of the accident caused her mixed emotions.

“It goes from sadness to anger. Someone reported an accident, and an article said the cops came with a flashlight, but you didn’t think to come back during the day and [search again]?” she asked.

There was also a question of whether the tide could have submerged the vehicle and other debris, possibly making it more challenging for officers to see any evidence of the accident. According to past weather data provided by Weather Underground, it was a cool 44-degree night with minimal clouds and a half moon in the sky. 

The low tide in the Wilmington area, according to US Harbors, was recorded at 11:33 p.m., shortly before police and rescue crews arrived on the scene. 

Kyle Purvis, a friend of Mayorga, said he well understands how the tide affects the area due to extensive professional experience on the region’s waterways. Even at high tide, the scene of the accident was too elevated to be affected by rising water, according to Purvis.

“If [officers] were to get out and shine their light, they should’ve been able to see debris [on the grass slope next to the tree line],” Purvis said. “And if they walked the wood line — it’s just kind of underbrush. And the car’s not taller than the sea grass. You would’ve been able to see the reflection from either the windshield or the paint or something.”

View more photos of the accident scene and the memorial below:

An aerial view of a marsh where it appears Paige Escalera’s vehicle landed approximately 150 feet from the curb along River Road. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
On Wednesday evening, plastic car debris could be seen along the tree line from the nearby Watemark Marina entrance road. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
On Wednesday evening, plastic car debris could be seen along the tree line from a nearby entrance road to Watermark Marina. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Plastic debris from the car of Paige Escalera lay in a thicket of woods west of the intersection of River Road and Independence Boulevard on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Approximately 48 feet from the curb where it appears the car collided with the curb, a memorial ribbon is tied to a tree broken off from the car’s collision course through the thicket. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The car appears to have first landed approximately 120 feet from the damaged curb, marked by a rectangular impression in the marsh roughly the size of a sedan. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Car debris and flowers lay at the base of a damaged tree approximately 150 feet from the damaged curb. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A floor mat sits in a marsh where the car appears to have come to rest. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Grappler Pritchard brings flowers to lay at the memorial of Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera, set up at a curb where it appears Escalera's car made contact before disappearing into the thicket of trees to his right. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Grappler Pritchard brings flowers to lay at the memorial of Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera, set up at a curb where it appears Escalera’s car made contact before disappearing into the thicket of trees to his right. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Bianca Pasquini and Grappler Pritchard lay flowers at a memorial for their friend Stephanie Mayorga and and her fiancée Paige Escalera on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
From left to right, Abby Wojteczko, Rebekah Borowiec, and Bianca Pasquini hold hands at the memorial of their friend, Stephanie Mayorga, and her fiancée Stephanie Mayorga on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Lauren Henderson, a friend of Stephanie Mayorga, lays flowers at a tree where it appears the car struck before resting in a swampy marsh ten feet away. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Send tips and comments to the reporter at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com, @markdarrough on Twitter, or (970) 413-3815

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