Pregnant woman dies in Landis crash

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman

Salisbury Post

LANDIS — A Jeep racing north on Main Street Tuesday afternoon crossed the center line and collided head-on with a car driven by a pregnant Salisbury woman.

Leeanna Newman, 20, of Cypress Lane, Salisbury, died following the accident.

Witnesses said a Kannapolis Police officer was pursuing the Jeep at the time of the accident, though officers said there was no high-speed chase.

The force of the crash sent the red Jeep, driven by Rigo Verto Guillen Martinez, 33, of Airport Road, Kannapolis, airborne. Witnesses said it overturned several times before coming to rest on its top about 30 yards from the site of the collision. Both vehicles were demolished and Main Street was blocked for hours while the accident was investigated.

Remarkably, Newman’s daughter, a toddler who was buckled in a child’s safety seat, escaped with only minor injuries. Her name was not available late Tuesday.

Doctors at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte performed a cesarean section in an attempt to save the mother’s unborn child. Television reports late Tuesday stated that the baby died, though the hospital spokeswoman said she knew nothing of the child’s condition.

“It’s horrible, man,” said T.J. Wilbanks, a witness to the crash. “That first car was flying. He couldn’t handle the curve.”

The accident happened about 5:15 p.m. on South Main Street at its intersection with First Street and Highland Avenue.

After overturning, the Jeep came to rest on top of Martinez and rescue workers had to use air bags to lift the vehicle. Martinez was transported to NorthEast Medical Center, then airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center where he was listed in fair condition late Tuesday.

Witnesses and police officers say the red Jeep was racing north on Main Street from Kannapolis. They said the accident was no fault of Newman’s.

There is dispute as to whether or not Martinz was involved in a high-speed pursuit with a Kannapolis police officer.

Maj. Woody Chavis of the Kannapolis Police Department said Officer David Horne was on Rosemont Avenue talking with two people in their front yard when he heard the Jeep approaching. It ran into the yard, Chavis said, almost striking the people to whom Horne was speaking.

Another motorist stopped almost immediately to tell Horne that the Jeep had already struck two other vehicles in minor accidents. Chavis said Horne got in his car, but Martinez was already out of sight. He said Horne spotted the Jeep just prior to the crash, but “never got close enough to chase him.”

Others had a different version. Wilbanks said he was traveling south on Main Street. Newman, in her white Saturn, was behind him.

He said he pulled to the side of the road and stopped when he saw the Kannapolis Police car with blue lights flashing chasing Martinez in the opposite direction.

Landis Police Capt. Steve McNeely, the investigating officer, said all of the officers involved were going to sit down together this morning and figure out exactly what happened.

“There are so many rumors flying around,” McNeely said.

He said that, regardless, Martinez is responsible for the accident.

“He’s definitely going to be charged; we’re just not sure with what,” McNeely said. He said the district attorney’s office may be contacted for guidance on what charges to file.

Karen Page said that minutes before the fatal crash, she saw the Jeep strike two other vehicles in minor accidents in Kannapolis.

Page said one of the cars that was struck belonged to a friend, so she turned and pursued the Jeep. She said that when she saw Horne standing outside his patrol car, she alerted him to what had transpired.

“I told him, ‘He’s hitting people and keeping on going,’ ” Page said.

She said Horne took off after Martinez and she followed. They didn’t go far.

Page estimated the Jeep’s speed at 70 to 80 mph when it collided with Newman’s car. The speed limit along the stretch is 35 mph.

The estimate of the Jeep’s speed was supported by Wilbanks. He said the Jeep “went flying by us.

“If I’d been two seconds further back, it would have been me,” Wilbanks said of the collision.

He said he rushed to the demolished car and lifted the toddler out before placing her in his van. Wilbanks said the toddler suffered a few scratches, but nothing serious.

He said he tried to help Newman, but could tell her condition was grave. Wilbanks said she mumbled something about being pregnant.

He said the Jeep “basically ran over that car.” Wilbanks and his mother cared for the toddler for about 30 minutes until rescue workers placed her on a stretcher for transport to NorthEast Medical Center.

In the car with Wilbanks and his mother were his own toddlers — Devin, 2, and Haley, not quite a year old.

“I’ve got grandchildren here and it just killed me,” Peggy Wilbanks said of the horror of witnessing the fatal collision.

Landis Town Administrator Reed Linn, who is also the town’s fire chief, was one of the first rescue workers on the scene.

“When people cross the yellow line at that rate of speed, it’s bad,” he said.

Landis Police Chief Reggie Faggart noted that it’s only about six blocks from the scene of the accident to the Kannapolis city limits. But like Chavis, he said he was under the impression that Horne was not involved in a high-speed chase at the time of the crash.

“He wasn’t pursuing, just trying to catch up,” Faggart said.

Chavis said Kannapolis officers have a policy to engage in high-speed pursuits only if they believe a driver has committed a serious misdemeanor or feel there is a threat of serious damage to property or persons.

“We don’t chase for gas drive-offs,” Chavis said. “We call off many more (chases) than we pursue.”

McNeely said there was another bad accident at the site several years ago. He said that like Tuesday’s crash, that wreck involved excessive speed.

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Staff writer Jessie Burchette contributed to this story. Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or