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Driver in deadly crash could face murder charges

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

LANDIS — The 33-year-old Kannapolis driver who may have been trying to elude police could face a second-degree murder charge in the death of a pregnant woman in a head-on collision here Tuesday.

Landis Police say the charges against Rigo Verto Guillen Martinez are pending completion of the accident investigation and blood tests.

Martinez was driving a 1992 Jeep Cherokee north on Main Street near the Kannapolis-Landis line around 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Police estimated that the vehicle was traveling north at 70 mph when the driver apparently attempted a near-180-degree turn onto Highland Avenue.

Leeanna Newman, 20, died shortly afterwards at Carolinas Medical Center. Efforts to save her unborn child failed.

Her 21-month-old daughter, Mallory, was back in her father’s care Wednesday.

Landis Police Chief Reggie Faggart said District Attorney Bill Kenerly will make the decision on charges against Martinez.

Charges could range from felony death by vehicle to second-degree murder. Since Newman’s unborn child also died as result of the wreck, Martinez could face multiple counts of manslaughter or second-degree murder.

Landis Police Capt. Steve McNeely said that when Martinez made the sudden turn at the high rate of speed, his vehicle struck the white Saturn driven by Newman, leaving her and her daughter in the mangled wreckage.

The Jeep overturned several times, landing on Martinez.

Police identified the owner of the Jeep as Esther Fisher, also of 108 Airport Road. The vehicle did have insurance.

Faggart said McNeely said Kannapolis Police are handling the investigation of what happened prior to the accident.

Kannapolis Police also brought their accident reconstruction team to the scene Tuesday night. A N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles inspector brought specialized scales from Surry County to the scene to weigh the two vehicles.

Main Street was closed until 1 a.m. Wednesday to complete the task.

Kannapolis Police are doing an administrative investigation to determine what happened from the time Officer David Horne saw the Jeep on Rosemont Avenue until the collision.

“There are so many conflicting stories,” said Maj. Woody Chavis of the Kannapolis Police Department. “We want to determine exactly what happened.”

Chavis said the review includes the audio tapes of radio traffic and video from the camera in the police car.

“We’re not saying whether (Horne) was chasing (the Jeep) or not,” Chavis said.

There were apparently several witnesses to the accident and others who saw the police car and Jeep a minute or so earlier.

Paula Beaver, a resident of Vance Street in Landis, called the Post and also went to the Landis Police Department Wednesday to tell what she saw. Beaver said she crossed the railroad tracks on 26th Street in Kannapolis and turned onto Main Street going north late Tuesday afternoon.

Near Airport Road, Beaver said she saw a Kannapolis police car chasing a red Jeep around a house.

She grabbed her cell phone and called her father. “You’re not going to believe what I just saw,” Beaver recalled telling her father and described the chase around the house.

She said the police car was within a car length of the Jeep.

Continuing to talk to her father on the cell phone, Beaver said a minute or so later she glanced into her rear view mirror to see the Jeep coming up behind her with the police car behind it.

At that point, she told her father she had to get out of the way of the cars. She ended the conversation and pulled over at Corriher Field as they went by.

Beaver said the blue lights were flashing on the police car from the time she first saw it going around the house. “I didn’t hear the siren, I had my radio on,” she said.

The house, which has several for rent signs, is adjacent to a building converted to Voice of Evangelism Church. Tire tracks were clearly evident in the yard Wednesday afternoon.

As the investigation continues, police are also checking on Martinez’s driving history.

Landis police said he had a Mexican driver’s license on him but no North Carolina license.

Police have requested both a report from the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles and his driving record.

Police have also contacted U.S. Immigration to determine if Martinez is in the country legally.

Late Wednesday, police had not talked with Martinez. He was unconscious when transported to NorthEast Medical Center and taken by helicopter to Carolinas Medical Center. He underwent surgery there Wednesday for numerous broken bones.

Landis Police also said they had no warning or advisory from Kannapolis Police about the red Jeep driving erratically.

Kannapolis Police are dispatched through Cabarrus and Landis works through the Rowan dispatch.

“It’s all completely separate,” McNeely said. “We can’t talk to each other (on the radio) even if we were sitting across the room from each other.”

Kannapolis Police had apparently issued a warning a minute or so before the wreck, after the vehicle had reportedly hit two cars in the nearby Rose Hill community.

It was there where Officer Horne first saw the Jeep while dealing with a domestic call on Rosemont Avenue. The Jeep went off of the road and through the front yard almost striking the two people who were talking to the officer.

Shortly afterwards, a driver stopped to tell the officer that the Jeep had already hit two other cars.

He then left the Rosemont address to search for the Jeep.

Kannapolis Police have a policy that governs chases.

Chavis said they call off more chases than are allowed to continue. Officers are allowed to chase if the person being pursued is believed to have to have committed a serious misdemeanor or felony.

Kannapolis Police have not been involved in a chase involving a fatality according to Chavis.

The final report on the accident and police involvement could be finished Friday or early next week. Police don’t expect to charge Martinez until he is discharged from the hospital. On Wednesday night, he remained in fair condition at Carolinas Medical Center.

Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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