Mom seeks justice after hit and run

Brush Prairie woman takes daughter's case into own hands

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Just after midnight on Feb. 3, Karen Munger awoke to a mother's worst nightmare: a call from her 16-year-old daughter saying she had just been in a car crash.

"She just started screaming," she said. "She said, 'Ruchelle's bleeding, Ruchelle's bleeding, Ruchelle's bleeding. Oh my God, Mom.'"

She quickly got the details. Her daughter, LaKell Munger, was just down the road from their rural Brush Prairie house at the intersection of Northeast 159th Street and 137th Avenue. Her friend Ruchelle Shamp, also 16, was in the passenger seat and had a cut on her face.

Munger jumped in the car and drove less than a quarter mile to the crash scene, still in her pajamas.

At the crash scene, Munger talked to her daughter, who told her someone hit her red Honda Civic from behind as she was turning north onto 137th Avenue. As she looked around for which other car was involved -- a few people had pulled over to help -- she learned the other car in the crash had taken off.

"I just sank," she said. "In the middle of the night, in the middle of the road, someone plows into my daughter's car. (The driver) hit them so hard, and he didn't stop, didn't check to make sure they were OK."

Disbelief quickly turned to a desire for justice.

The next day, Munger visited the Clark County Sheriff's Office to talk to the deputy who had responded and lead the investigation. The woman at the front desk told her he was off duty for the next few days, but that her case had been suspended due to lack of investigative leads.

"I felt hopeless," she said. "I realized they got away with it."

Suspending a case does not close the case, clarified sheriff's Sgt. Fred Neiman.

Nevertheless, Munger began to look for clues herself.

In the light of day, Munger found pieces of a red bumper in the 4-foot-deep ditch to the side of the road. Some were as far as 30 feet from where the crash happened. With waders on, she collected the car pieces and took them home.

"I was on the mission," she said. "I had gloves on, digging for every teeny, tiny, smallest shard of anything in any of those ditches."

After she was done collecting, she took the debris to her house. She eventually realized the red of the car parts she found weren't the same red as that of her daughter's Honda Civic.

So she called a friend who works at an auto body shop. He pieced together that the bumper belonged to a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A fog light that fell off the Jeep further narrowed the field: The vehicle was made between 1999 and 2004.

Ruchelle's father came over to the Munger residence a few days later and noticed what appeared to be a partial license-plate imprint in the back of the Honda -- it containing the letter Z and some numbers.

Her motivator through this, she said, is a drive to make sure someone is held accountable for the crash and to prevent the unidentified driver from committing similar offenses.

"The idea that somebody can be that reckless -- I want them to take responsibility," he said. "If this person was drunk, and that's why they ran, there's a pretty good chance they'll do it again. We thank God everyday it was just a concussion."

She took her clues to the sheriff's office, who assigned the case to Detective Jim Payne, a traffic crash reconstructionist.

He confirmed what Munger had found and said the three numbers the group noticed from the license plate imprint were 301.

Payne is asking anyone with information about the crash to contact him at 360-397-2211, ext. 4175; or at jim.payne@clark.wa.gov.

To entice people to help solve the case, Munger said that she and others who have donated to her cause are offering a $500 reward to anyone who gives information that leads to identifying the driver.

Munger is making sure to get her message out there.

She made fliers and put them up at area high schools, wrecking yards and auto body shops.

She put clues on Facebook and said the post has been shared nearly 500 times.

She said she doesn't plan to stop her investigating soon.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we'll find this car," she said. "This driver can't hide."

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;emily.gillespie@columbian.com.