TACOMA — Pierce County prosecutors say no crime occurred when two cars collided in July on Tacoma’s Tideflats, killing six young people from Arizona. Washington State Patrol investigators determined the Arizona residents’ vehicle ran a red light when the wreck occurred.
That’s according to the State Patrol’s nearly three-month investigation of the July 16 crash at the intersection of state Route 509 and Alexander Avenue, the deadliest wreck the state has recorded in more than two decades.
Seven people were crammed into a Kia Forte driven south through the intersection about 11:17 a.m. when it was hit by an eastbound driver in a BMW SUV that went through a yellow traffic light, according to a copy of the charging decision shared by the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which referenced investigators’ findings. Both cars rotated, and the Kia hit a curb, rolling until it stopped 70 feet from the area of impact and caught fire.
Five of the Kia’s occupants were declared dead at the scene, the State Patrol said, and a sixth died of his injuries after he was taken to the St. Joseph Medical Center. The seventh occupant, a 21-year-old Phoenix man, survived with serious injuries. Prosecutors said he had no recollection of the crash.
Those who died were Felix Y Begay, 25, of Kayenta, Arizona; Cerra Corner, 19, of Phoenix; Lisa Esparza, 19, of Phoenix; Javan Runnels, 22, of Phoenix; Calsie Sockyma, 25, of Tuba City, Arizona and Erick Tsosie, 25, of Kayenta, Arizona.
Prosecutors said the BMW occupants, a 42-year-old Tacoma man and his 40-year-old wife, were uninjured.
The investigators’ report was forwarded to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on Oct. 12, according to the charging decision document, which was dated Thursday and drafted by a deputy prosecuting attorney. She said the incident was not vehicular homicide or vehicular assault.
“There is insufficient evidence to prove that the BMW driver acted with disregard for the safety of others, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Dasse wrote. “The driving behavior showed that he was driving in excess of the speed limit, but slowing prior to the intersection. It was reported that the BMW entered the intersection on a yellow light while the Kia entered the intersection on a red light. The BMW was going above the speed limit of 50 MPH, but that alone is insufficient to support a criminal charge.”
The BMW driver gave a statement to law enforcement saying that he and his wife were driving to church, and he had a green light when he drove through the intersection, according to the charging decision. He said he saw the other car and braked. Prosecutors said his wife provided the same narrative.
Both vehicles were processed for evidence. Prosecutors said evidence found the Kia was steadily accelerating and did not brake before the collision. Data from its airbag control unit showed its speed at impact was about 36-41 mph.
Similar data from the BMW put the vehicle at 80 mph five seconds before the collision and 60 mph when it occurred. Investigators calculated it was going about 50-66 mph at impact.
Investigators said one witness who was driving on northbound state Route 509 reported being passed by a white BMW X7 — the same model and color as the BMW involved — and a bright blue BMW. He reportedly said the vehicles were traveling at high speed and appeared to be racing, but investigators said it’s unknown whether the white BMW was the same vehicle that collided with the Kia.
The driver of the blue BMW was tracked down by detectives, and they reported not seeing any erratic driving or racing from the white BMW. They said the white BMW had a yellow light when it went through the intersection.
How investigators determined Kia ran light
Detectives used the locations of a vehicle-detection system relied upon by traffic signals at the Alexander Avenue intersection and video of the wreck from the Port of Tacoma to determine the light changes at the time of the incident, according to prosecutors’ charging decision. State Route 509 is a divided highway through that stretch, and two traffic signals about 200 feet apart from one another direct drivers.
Prosecutors said the signals are controlled by magnetic systems that detect vehicles. It was unclear at the start of the State Patrol’s investigation whether one or both vehicles failed to obey the light. The intersection, which has recorded just one other fatal collision since 2014, according to data from the Washington State Department of Transportation, is now the subject of two $20 million legal claims that allege the road’s design created an “inherently dangerous” intersection that allowed the wreck to occur.
The claims were filed with the City of Tacoma and WSDOT, and they were brought by attorneys representing Lisa Campbell, the mother of Runnels. The lawyers were not immediately available to comment Thursday.
A new interchange is planned to eventually replace the Alexander Avenue and state Route 509 intersection as part of the Department of Transportation’s $367 million 167 Completion Project.
Why did AZ residents need to cross SR-509?
Prosecutors’ charging decision document shed some light on why the Arizona residents crossed the highway at Alexander Avenue, which to the north leads into an industrial area not frequented by Tacoma visitors. Families of the victims previously told The News Tribune their loved ones had traveled to Washington to attend an Amway convention at the Tacoma dome.
Investigators determined that before the wreck, the Kia was southbound on state Route 509. The driver turned right onto Alexander, made a U-turn and then stopped at the first traffic light. When the signal turned green, the Kia crossed southbound 509 and then entered northbound 509 on a red light. As the BMW approached the intersection, the light changed from green to yellow and was still yellow at the time of the collision.
The State Patrol also found that five of the victims — Corner, Begay, Runnels, Sockyma and Tsosie —were in the backseat of the Kia not wearing seatbelts. Esparza was driving, and the Phoenix man who survived was in the front passenger’s seat.