Tuesday, January 18, 2022

WPD cites alcohol as cause of missing women’s fatal crash, defends search efforts

WATCH: WPD Interim Chief Donny Williams and two of his deputy chiefs discuss the results of an investigation into the original missing persons case and, later, the fatal car accident of Paige Escalera and Stephanie Mayorga.

WILMINGTON — The Wilmington Police Department has concluded its investigation into the missing persons case of Wilmington couple Paige Escalera and Stephanie Mayorga. WPD confirmed the two women had been killed in a fatal car crash on River Road; officials said that alcohol and speed were major factors in their death.

WPD did not officially say the deaths had been ruled accidental but did not suggest any foul play or intentional self-harm was involved. The department said it believed the couple had intended to return home that evening. WPD noted that they had left their personal property, including Escalera’s cellphone, at home and had also ordered delivery food, which was found outside their door in the morning.

Search on the night of the crash

The department confirmed that, on the night of April 15, officers spent only eight minutes at the scene of the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection because officers were forced to respond to dispatched calls for an armed robbery and a report of shots fired.

Interim Chief Donnie Williams and two of his deputy chiefs did not address why officers failed to return later that night or the following morning, in daylight, to inspect the scene. They did say no evidence of a crash was found during their eight minutes on the scene.

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

At the time, officers who were responding to an armed robbery changed course and arrived on the scene of the witnessed accident along with units from the Wilmington Fire Department and New Hanover Regional Medical Center EMS.

“When they began 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 that area,” Deputy Chief Ben Kennedy said.

Fire personnel used lights on a fire truck to illuminate the area and drove down opposite directions along River Road in search of a vehicle. There was a total of nine emergency responders at the scene, he said.

During this time, a second armed robbery call went out on the radio, followed by a “shots fired” call dispatched minutes later which was discovered to be a homicide, according to Kennedy.

The officers on scene left the area to respond to those calls, and EMS and Fire units left a few minutes later, he said.

“No lights were seen, there was no smoke, noise, or anything coming from the crash site,” Kennedy concluded at the end of the press conference.

Locating the vehicle, 911 call

On the afternoon of May 4, WPD located the vehicle but could not identify the bodies at the time. WPD did not address how officers actually found the vehicle during the virtual press conference.

WPD noted that when officers located the vehicle they did find “a faint tire imprint near the curb, as well as scuff marks on the curb itself.” The department noted that the efforts to extract the car from the dense vegetation and swamp on the western side of River Road caused the extensive ‘trail’ noted by many after May 4.

Following the announcement that the car had been found, rumors began to circulate that there had been a 911 call on the night of the women’s disappearance.

The following morning, Port City Daily filed a public records request for any 911 calls about a car crash in the area from the night of April 15 or the early morning of April 16. These records are maintained by New Hanover County and it is the county’s policy to notify any relevant law enforcement agency when a request is received.

County officials confirmed they were processing the request around 7:30 a.m. on May 5. Five hours later, around 12:30 p.m., Wilmington Police Department released an update, noting that a 911 call had been received on the night of the women’s disappearance.

WPD claims it had discovered the 911 call the previous day — that is, May 4 — although they didn’t include that information in their initial announcement.

Alcohol and speeding

“We believe the women were traveling west on Independence Boulevard between 102 and 103 miles per hour when they hit the curb to the left of the Watermark Marina entrance and went airborne,” Deputy Chief Alex Sotelo announced.

She said surveillance footage showed that the women purchased a 12-pack of beer from a local convenience store at 10:49 p.m., roughly one hour before the crash. Empty beer bottles were found in Escalera’s car by police nearly three weeks later.

“Surveillance footage also shows one of the women holding a beer bottle as they exited their apartment around 9 p.m. that night,” Sotelo said.

This confirms theories spread around social media after the car was discovered that one of the women had left the apartment with an alcoholic beverage in her hand.

She said that due to the level of decomposition of the women’s bodies once they were discovered, it is unlikely a toxicology report will yield results. But the evidence led the department to confidently say that alcohol played a large role in the crash, according to Sotelo.

The WPD released a reenacted video of what it determined was the car’s route into the trees southwest of the River Road and Independence Boulevard. (Courtesy Wilmington Police Department)

Using dental records and visible tattoos, the medical examiner has identified Mayorga as the driver and Escalera as the passenger. The cause of death for both women has been ruled as the result of severe head and chest injuries sustained in the crash.

Kennedy confirmed that a man driving east on Independence Boulevard passed a vehicle driving in the opposite direction at a high rate of speed and failed to stop at the River Road intersection, and from his passenger-side mirror he saw the car crash into what he thought was a wall and into a wooded area.

“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,” the 911 caller told the dispatcher during a call that lasted roughly seven minutes, starting at 10:52 p.m.

According to Deputy Chief Alex Sotelo, data from the car’s computer revealed that Escalera hit the brake when the car struck the curb, explaining the lack of skid marks in the intersection. She said the car’s battery broke in half at this moment, shutting off any lights or sounds that could have alerted first responders to a crashed vehicle. Thick vegetation covered the back of the car, preventing searchers’ lights from catching the reflection of the taillights, according to Sotelo.

No questions

While WPD referred to today’s announcement as a ‘virtual press conference,’ the pre-recorded format did not give local reporters a chance to ask questions as is typically the case in press conferences. WPD cited Covid-19 concerns (although the department did hold a traditional press conference on April 29, when the search for the missing women was still active). While WPD noted it had shared ‘all available details’ not barred by privacy or legal reasons, questions remain.

A week ago, Port City Daily asked the department 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.

A WPD spokesperson said because the investigation was ongoing at the time, she could provide no answers to those questions.

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