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Driver in crash that killed 9 traveling ‘in excess of 100 mph,’ police say

Updated January 31, 2022 - 10:06 pm

Seven of nine people killed in a North Las Vegas multi-vehicle crash were family members, including four children and three adults, police and family said Sunday.

Two others who suffered fatal injuries were in a Dodge Challenger authorities said blew through a red light Saturday afternoon at more than 100 mph north on Commerce Street, where the speed limit is 35 mph, causing the wreck at the intersection with Cheyenne Avenue. At least four others in separate vehicles were injured, police said.

“A heartfelt condolences to the families and everyone affected by this horrific incident,” acting North Las Vegas Police Chief Jacqueline Gravatt said. “It affects us as a community, as a valley and as a nation as a whole.”

North Las Vegas Police called it the deadliest wreck on valley roads in recent history.

The Clark County coroner’s office on Sunday night identified eight of the nine people killed in the crash. Those in a Toyota Sienna were Fernando Yeshua Mejia, 5; Adrian Zacarias, 10; Lluvia Daylenn Zacarias, 13; Bryan Axel Zacarias, 15; Gabriel Mejia-Barrera, 23; David Mejia-Barrera, 25; and Jose Zacarias-Caldera, 35. All were from North Las Vegas.

The driver of the Challenger was identified as Gary Dean Robinson, 59, of North Las Vegas. The passenger of the Challenger had not yet been identified as of Sunday night.

After the Challenger, with a passenger in his 50s, struck the minivan about 3 p.m. Saturday, police said, the Sienna collided with a white Ford Fusion, driven by a 31-year-old woman. Those three vehicles were pushed north into the westbound lanes of Cheyenne, where three other vehicles were struck, including a tan Chevrolet Malibu, carrying a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old, a white Hyundai SUV, driven by a 39-year-old, and white Mercedes SUV carrying two 51-year-old people.

Most of the vehicles ended up in a vacant lot at the northeast corner of the intersection.

Related: Nevada ticketed thousands of drivers for going 100 mph or more last year

A woman who launched a GoFundMe page on Sunday wrote that her family members were in one of the vehicles struck.

The post said in Spanish that she had lost four children, two stepchildren, and a brother.

“There is no bigger pain than to lose all your children,” Erlinda Zacarias wrote. “I ask you, with my heart on my sleeve, to help me raise funds to give them a proper goodbye.”

The page had raised more than $40,000 by 9 p.m.

In tears, Pablo Ramirez said in a phone interview that two minors in the minivan were his children.

He said that his family had not seen the victims because they were not allowed near the wreckage Saturday. He added that they were heading to a funeral home Sunday night and expecting “mucho gasto,” or a lot in funeral expenses.

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee addressed reporters outside City Hall on Sunday.

“We had an unprecedented loss of life yesterday in our community,” he said. “We really care when something happens in the community, and this pulls the heart right out of it.”

Teens Nick Gomez and Erik Ramos brought candles and a teddy bear to the crash site on Sunday afternoon, saying Bryan Zacarias was a friend.

A fence to a nearby vacant lot had been partially destroyed by the wreckage, and a few candles were placed under a sign across from the intersection. Most of the debris had been cleared from the area, as cars passed through the intersection in both directions.

Later in the night, four more of Bryan Zacarias’ classmates placed flowers and candles at a small vigil near the crash site. Sherlyn Coss, Alexis Lopez, Mikey Rodriguez and Sammy Melendez remembered him as a “funny, outgoing person.” He was “scandalous,” they said, in a good way.

“He knew everybody,” Lopez said. “He was cool with everybody.”

Zacarias was a sophomore at Rancho High School, they said, and he was a motivator. He worked out a lot and would often encourage others. When Coss learned about the crash, she initially thought it was a joke because Zacarias loved to joke around.

“Right now, it’s still kind of like, it’s not believable,” Rodriguez said. “But I know once we’re at school tomorrow it’s gonna hit, because he’s not gonna be there. Right now, I’m still in shock.”

One of two people taken to University Medical Center from the crash survived but suffered life-threatening injuries, police spokesman Alexander Cuevas said.

Fifteen people in total were involved, police said.

“We have not seen a mass casualty traffic collision like this before,” Cuevas said. “Please make this a safer community by slowing down. Pay attention to speed limits.”

“Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families who are experiencing a tremendous and unnecessary loss due to a careless and senseless act,” North Las Vegas Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown said at a Saturday evening news conference near the scene.

The North Las Vegas Fire Department, which has a firehouse nearby, responded within two minutes with two engines, a ladder truck and two ambulances. A group of 18 firefighters were commanded by a fire chief, spokesman Nino Galloway said Sunday.

Medic West Ambulance, which also has a station in the area, responded with five ambulances, Galloway said.

Galloway described the first five minutes as “chaotic.”

“Obviously, when you have such a heavy loss of life, it will have that impact,” Galloway said. “It’s not surprising that it was chaotic. It would be chaotic if one person loss their life.”

Leaders react

Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II, whose district includes the crash site, visited the scene on Sunday afternoon.

“At the end of the day, this was 100 percent avoidable and preventable,” he said. “That is unacceptable. That’s an unreasonable expectation for us to be able to go out and be about our business and not make it home. It could’ve been anybody. It could’ve been me, myself, because I actually don’t live too far from here. It’s very frustrating.”

Other public figures took to Twitter on Sunday to express condolences.

“Our hearts ache for the families & loved ones of the 9 people killed in this senseless act — Kathy & I will be keeping them in our hearts & prayers during this very difficult time,” Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote in a tweet.

“This is so tragic and my heart goes out to all of the family members of the victims of this senseless incident,” Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones wrote. “And please, drivers, just slow down. Getting to your destination a few seconds earlier isn’t ever worth speeding through a red light.”

“Mass casualty events should not happen on local roads. This is a heartbreaking tragedy that was avoidable,” Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft wrote. “Personal responsibility — slow the hell down. Better engineering for all road users. Improved education refreshers on rules of the road. Enforcement fair but meaningful.”

“My thoughts are with the families & loved ones of the 9 people killed in this senseless and preventable tragedy,” Sen. Jacky Rosen wrote. “I urge all drivers to please slow down and be aware of their surroundings. We all have a responsibility to be safe and cautious on the roads.”

“My heart goes out to the families of the nine victims of this tragic crash” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wrote. “Paul and I are thinking of you. Please slow down on the roads and help us keep our community safe.”

“Such a horrible, preventable accident,” Attorney General Aaron Ford wrote. “Praying for the families of those lost. Slow down, everyone. Please.”

“I am struggling to find the words this morning,” Clark County Office of Traffic Safety Director Andrew Bennett wrote in a tweet, calling for immediate action. “9 lives lost in 1 preventable crash. My thoughts are with the victims’ families & the men and women who responded to this crash. Going to work tomorrow has a renewed sense of urgency.”

Recent wrecks in the LV Valley

The crash occurred less than 24 hours after a pedestrian was struck and killed by a pickup on the same throughway, less than 2 miles away.

Less than three weeks ago, another six-vehicle crash just south of Las Vegas left four people dead.

On Jan. 10, a Cadillac was headed north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 15 near Jean when it collided with a Toyota pickup, the Nevada Highway Patrol said. The Toyota burst into flames, and three people inside were pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the Cadillac, a woman, also died at the scene.

Saturday’s wreck was the deadliest event in the Las Vegas Valley since the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Strip, which killed 60 victims. Six people died in a downtown Las Vegas apartment fire in 2019.

The valley saw its deadliest crash on Clark County roads since December 2020, when a box truck driver high on methamphetamine plowed into a group of bicyclists, killing five near Searchlight.

Jordan Barson, 45, hit cyclists Erin Michelle Ray, 39, Gerrard Suarez Nieva, 41, Michael Todd Murray, 57, Aksoy Ahmet, 48, and Tom Trauger, 57, as they rode along U.S. Highway 95 near Searchlight.

Barson was ordered to serve a prison term of between 16 and 40 years.

A year earlier, four people were killed, including three generations from one family, and two were critically burned in a fiery seven-vehicle crash in the western valley.

Police said a speeding 38-year-old Tacuma Wesley ran through a red light at Durango Drive and Desert Inn Road and slammed into another car, killing Donna Martinez, 48; her daughter, 29-year-old Amanda Martinez; and granddaughter, 4-year-old Layla Martinez-White.

Wesley, who authorities said had marijuana in his system at the time of the crash, also died.

Among other recent deadly wrecks in Nevada: an Elko County crash in February 2020 left four people dead; a June 2018 wreck in Washoe County killed four; and a May 2018 crash in Nye County left five dead.

Recent spike in traffic deaths

Last year was the deadliest on Nevada roads in 14 years. Nevada had 382 traffic fatalities in 2021, representing an 18 percent year-over-year increase statewide.

“It’s shocking,” Bennett said recently. “We believe that speed and impairment will continue to be the leading causes of fatalities, and at the end of the day those two specifically are choices that people make.”

Near the scene of Saturday’s wreck, Clark County Office of Traffic Safety Director Andrew Bennett pointed out that there were no other traffic lights for about a half mile in either direction. He said early indications showed that the light had been red for some time before the driver of the Challenger entered the intersection.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced in a tweet that it plans to investigate the crash.

There will be two investigations, Bennett said — one from NTSB and one from local agencies.

That would mark only the second time in the last 10 years that the NTSB investigates a crash in Southern Nevada, including the collision that left the bicyclists dead, Bennett said.

Bennett, who only started his new job in the newly created department on Monday, said the conversation about fatal crashes needs to change.

“Right now, we’re only investigating fatals for criminality,” he said. “So if we start to shift the conversation to cause, and how we can implement those countermeasures, that’s what I’m excited about.”

McCurdy echoed that sentiment from the crash site, vowing to work with local agencies to find common causes for fatal crashes and saying he planned to look at ways to improve the situation from a legislative perspective.

In Clark County, there was a year-over-year increase of 22 percent with 235 deaths. About 8 percent of all cases investigated by the county coroner’s office in 2021 were fatal crashes.

Fatalities had fallen for several years, reaching a low of 304 in 2019. They’ve increased both of the past two years, state data shows.

The highest death total noted by state records dating to 1991 happened in 2006, when 431 fatalities were recorded.

“This is devastating for everyone,” McCurdy said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified how many of the minor victims were children of Pablo Ramirez.

Investigative reporter Michael Scott Davidson contributed to this story.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez, Jonah Dylan, David Wilson at rtorres@reviewjournal.com, jdylan@reviewjournal.com and dwilson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @rickytwrites, @TheJonahDylan and @davidwilson_RJ on Twitter.

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