Police in North Carolina were told last month that a woman and her fiancée went missing on the same night that a high-speed crash had been reported, but the couple’s bodies and the car were not discovered at the scene of the reported wreck until more than two weeks later.
Family and friends are wondering why.
The newly-engaged couple, Paige Escalera, 25, and Stephanie Mayorga, 27, were last seen on April 15, according to Wilmington Police. Their roommate, under the impression that she had to wait 72 hours to report the women missing, called police about their disappearance on April 19.
At the time, authorities said that the two disappeared under “suspicious” circumstances. “They had also ordered food, which was discovered outside their door the following morning. All signs seemed to indicate the couple intended to return home that night,” according to a statement issued by interim Police Chief Donny Williams last week.
Investigators searched “broad areas of interest” for Escalera’s grey 2013 Dodge Dart, police said. It was finally found less than seven miles from the women’s apartment and more than two weeks after they were reported missing after police uncovered a 911 call about a high-speed crash from the night the women disappeared.
Two bodies were found inside, and last week Williams announced that using dental records and visible tattoos, a medical examiner had identified Mayorga as the driver and Escalera as the passenger.
“My biggest concern is why they didn’t conduct a reasonable search that night,” Escalera’s sister Stevie Jenkins told NBC News. “I feel like all the clues to find them were handed to them and they just brushed it off because they ‘didn’t see anything,’ as they reported.”
Local news site Port City Daily obtained the April 15th 911 call about the crash. The caller told police: “I just saw a car driving so fast and smash into the wall … Wow … Listen, this is like really serious. … 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. … I saw in my glass mirror the car like disappear inside the tree. … I’m sure what I saw.”
Wilmington Police, emergency medical services, and fire crews responded and talked with the caller, who remained on the scene to help, but officers left in under 10 minutes, police said.
“We are unable to locate any vehicle that appears to be crashed up and down River Road or near the intersections,” an officer told dispatch eight minutes after crews arrived at the scene, Port City Daily reported. “You can clear all units off this.”
Jenkins wants to know why crews didn’t search longer while the 911 caller was there to guide them.
“I feel like the biggest help is an eyewitness, who they said stayed on the scene, and no one was still able to find them,” she said. “They use the excuse of not being able to see signs of broken branches but they told our family that an officer who seen broken branches is what led him to find the car on May 4th, 19 days after the accident.”
Police have said in a statement that when they returned to the scene of the reported wreck on May 4, “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,” police said in a statement. “In addition, thick vegetation at the back of the car fully covered the taillights and prevented any reflection under a searchlight.”
“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,” the statement said. Tire tracks and broken limbs seen after the car was found were caused by a tow truck used to remove the car from the vegetation and the water, police said.
Police said the Dodge’s battery broke in half upon impact, “shutting off any lights or sounds that could have alerted first responders to the crash.”
Officers who had responded to the crash report had originally been on the scene of an armed robbery and left when they received calls about a second armed robbery that turned into a homicide, police said last week.
For two weeks before finding the car, police said they had dedicated 1,600 man hours to the search for the missing women, fielding more than 100 tips, including a false lead from someone who said they had kidnapped the couple and wanted money. Police also said they interviewed friends and family of the couple and searched their social media profiles and Escalera’s phone for clues.
Police said investigators determined that “alcohol and speed were major factors in the wreck.” The car was likely traveling between 102 and 103 mph when it hit a curb and went airborne, flying over a sloped area and landing 20 feet below, police said Thursday.
The car “hit the ground 115 feet away from the road and skidded forward until it collided with a tree 150 feet off the roadway,” police said, adding that the car was going so fast that less than a second elapsed between its hitting the curb and crashing into the ground.
Police said “several open, empty beer bottles were discovered in the vehicle,” and investigators discovered the women had bought a 12-pack of beer an hour before the crash. Surveillance photos also show one of the women holding a beer bottle as the couple left their apartment that night, police said.
But they cannot say for sure whether Mayorga, who was driving, was drinking. “Due to the level of decomposition, it is unlikely that a toxicology report will yield results,” police said.
The cause of death for both women was ruled to be the result of traumatic head and chest injuries sustained in the crash.
Friends who gathered at a memorial near the crash site earlier this month said they thought the couple should have been found sooner.
“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],” friend Jacqueline Garland lamented to local news site Port City Daily while attending a memorial at the crash site earlier this month. “This would be the first place that I would search the next day … I’m not even an investigator and I know these things.”
Bianca Pasquini, a friend of Mayorga’s told Port City Daily that emotions about her friend’s death quickly turned “from sadness to anger.”
“Someone reported an accident,” she said. “The cops came with a flashlight, but you didn’t think to come back during the day?”
When NBC News asked police on Tuesday if officers returned to the site of the reported crash in daylight and why they did not connect the reported accident to the missing women, a spokeswoman declined to comment and referred to the department’s statements.
“As an investigator, you would think to pull any call-ins or cases within three to five days of a missing persons report,” Jenkins said. “It shouldn’t take a civilian to realize that.”