An engaged North Carolina couple found dead in their car weeks after they vanished were intoxicated and traveling at high speeds before the fatal crash, police now say.
Stephanie Mayorga, 27, and Paige Escalera, 25, vanished on April 15 after they were spotted getting into Escalera’s gray Dodge Dart. A search ensued for weeks until May 4, when the car was located “deep in the woods,” not far from their Wilmington home, according to the Wilmington Police Department. While their bodies were badly decomposed, dental records and visible tattoos helped police identify the driver as Mayorga and the passenger as Escalera, police said during a Thursday press conference.
While police previously noted that the couple were likely “involved in an extremely high velocity crash,” by Thursday they were more specific about their investigation. Deputy Police Chief Alex Sotelo announced at the press conference that police believe the women were traveling between 102 and 103 mph when they hit a curb and went airborne. Because the ground slopes in that area, he noted, the Dart then traveled at about 100 mph — and above 20 feet above ground — as it flew in between trees.
“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,” Sotelo said. “This crash happened in the blink of an eye. From the time the vehicle hit the curb to the time of the collision, only 0.99 seconds elapsed.”
In addition to speed, Sotelo pointed to intoxication as a factor in the fatal crash.
“Several open, empty beer bottles were discovered in the vehicle, and 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,” he said. “Surveillance photos also show one of the women holding a beer bottle as they exited their apartment around 9 p.m. that night.”
Sotelo said that it is unlikely that a toxicology report will be performed on the couple, because of the state of decomposition on their bodies, but did say Thursday that police “are confident alcohol played a large role in the crash.”
Escalera's sister Stevie Jenkins told Oxygen.com on Tuesday "there was no evidence indicating that the driver was intoxicated."
She added, "That sounds to me like they are using alcohol as an excuse to not search further and to sway the attention of the public from their negligence to drinking and driving."
Jenkins also alleged that "had they [police] done a proper investigation at the time of the crash, they would have been able to either save their lives or determine the actual cause and factors of their deaths."
Police said that 911 records have revealed that police, fire, and EMS were dispatched to the crash area just before midnight the night the women vanished. The caller said "he witnessed a car traveling at a high rate of speed, running through a stop sign, and crashing," Sotelo noted. First responders searched the area but didn’t see any lights, smoke, or noise, Deputy Police Chief Ben Kennedy said Thursday. An armed robbery call and a shots fired call was dispatched minutes later and the officers on scene left the area to respond to those calls.
Sotelo explained Thursday that the car’s battery broke in half on impact, “shutting off any lights or sounds that could have alerted first responders to the crash.” He added that thick vegetation fully covered the taillights and “prevented any reflection under a searchlight.”
Several loved ones have publicly criticized the police investigation, questioning why they didn’t return to the crash scene in daylight to search again more thoroughly, according to Wilmington publication Port City Daily.
Jenkins has remained critical, alleging that certain explanations don't add up for her.
"Had they done their best and not provided such runaround reasonings for not finding them in an appropriate amount of time, I don't think I would be as upset as I am," she told Oxygen.com on Tuesday. "There were so many clues and as a Police Department, you would think that they would have done a better job. These are professionals who are supposed to be serving and protecting their citizens and they failed to do this. I feel that we have been lied to so much just to cover up the negligence on their end."
She added that a witness, the 911 caller, was present at the scene shortly after the crash directing police where to look.
Additionally, the grieving sibling told Oxygen.com that police claim that broken limbs and track marks in the grass are from removing the car from the scene.
"However, my family was told that an officer noticing broken limbs is what led him to search the scene and find the girls on May 4th," she said.
Wilmington Police Department spokesperson Linda Thompson told Port City Daily, “We believe that the officers who responded to the crash call on April 15 acted appropriately. We did not return to the crash site the following day because there was no evidence to show that there was a crash.”
The department told Oxygen.com on Tuesday that they will not be commenting any further on the case.
Both women died of traumatic head and chest injuries sustained in the crash, Sotelo said Thursday.
"My sister was so bright," Jenkins told Oxygen.com. "If someone was having a bad day or even feeling down on themselves, she would stop you and say, 'Hey, you're beautiful' or, 'You're smart, it'll work out.' She always wanted people to remember to take care of themselves."
Jenkins previously told Oxygen.com that her sister and Mayorga had only recently gotten engaged and moved in together when they vanished.
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