GF crash kills two (June 5, 2010)A speeding, intoxicated driver was fleeing the scene of a traffic stop early Saturday morning in Grand Forks when he broadsided a car carrying four young adults who had just gone to a late-night cancer benefit.
By: Archie Ingersoll and Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
A speeding, intoxicated driver was fleeing the scene of a traffic stop early Saturday morning in Grand Forks when he broadsided a car carrying four young adults who had just gone to a late-night cancer benefit.
Two of the four — James Freestone, 21, and Tasha Brenno, 19 — were killed and the other two — Kathryn Olson, 22, and Michael Badurek, 18 — were injured in the crash at the intersection of Columbia and 17th Avenue South, authorities said.
“All of them were friends and all worked at Hugo’s,” said Olson’s father, Glen. “They chummed around together and did this, that and the other thing.”
“They were nice kids, really nice kids,” said Rick Dierker, manager of the Hugo’s store across from Altru Hospital.
The collision occurred at about 1:40 a.m., minutes after Officer Matt Beland saw a ’95 Chevrolet Lumina blow through a red light at the intersection of Columbia Road and University Avenue. Beland, who’s with the UND Police Department, put on his overhead lights and pulled over the southbound car just before the Columbia Road overpass.
As Beland came to the driver’s door, he said, the black car squealed its tires and sped away — up and across the overpass.
By the time Beland was in his vehicle, a Ford Expedition, the suspect was at the crest of the overpass and was heading down the other side.
“I was still in park, and he was probably going 60 mph already,” Beland said.
After Beland reached the crest of the overpass, he could see the other driver pulling away, still heading south on Columbia.
“I was going 90, and that was about as fast as I wanted to go,” he said. “I would assume he was probably going close to 100.”
Considering the suspect’s high speed and knowing his vehicle could only go about 100 mph, Beland said, he thought about calling off the chase shortly after he crossed the overpass.
Seconds later, just about a mile from where the chase started, Beland witnessed the suspect slam into a 2009 Pontiac G6. “The only thing that I seen, being that it happened so fast, was just sparks and vehicles spinning out of control,” he said.
When the Pontiac, a silver four-door sedan, was struck, Beland said, it was heading east on 17th, possibly turning north onto Columbia. Police said the car had the green light.
Inside the Pontiac, Freestone was killed on impact. Brenno was taken to Altru where she died sometime afterward. Olson was transported to Altru, where she was placed in the intensive-care unit. Badurek was treated at the hospital and released Saturday.
The fleeing suspect, 24-year-old Celso Garza, had no one else in his vehicle. Garza, East Grand Forks, was treated at Altru for minor injuries. He was then taken to the Grand Forks County Correctional Center where he was booked at 6 a.m., a jail spokeswoman said.
UND Police Chief Duane Czapiewski said the Pontiac was struck on the driver’s side in the middle toward the rear of the car. After that collision, the suspect’s car spun and hit a third vehicle with two people inside. Those two escaped injury, and their vehicle sustained minor damage.
When Beland arrived at the crash scene, he called for assistance from paramedics, firefighters and other officers. Beland said Garza seemed to have been knocked out in the collision and did not try to flee after the collision.
Czapiewski, who also responded to the crash scene, said authorities could not tell whether the victims were wearing seat belts. One person had to be extricated from the car, the chief said.
Czapiewski said, at this point, there’s no evidence to suggest the victims had been drinking. He said authorities at the hospital drew blood from Garza, which will be analyzed for the presence of drugs and alcohol.
After the crash, a small amount of marijuana, a pipe and an open 40-ounce bottle of booze were found in Garza’s car, Beland said.
The Grand Forks Police Department is investigating the crash and the state Highway Patrol is assisting by analyzing skid marks and trying to determine distances vehicles traveled and their speeds. “This is going to take some time to put together,” Czapiewski said.
Czapiewski couldn’t recall the last time two people died in a Grand Forks vehicle crash. “I haven’t had time to think about it, but I’m sure it’s a long time,” he said.
State’s Attorney Peter Welte said Garza will face two counts of manslaughter, two counts of reckless endangerment along with charges of driving under the influence, possession of marijuana, possession of a marijuana pipe, having an open alcoholic beverage in a vehicle, driving with a revoked license, disregarding a red light and fleeing a police officer in a vehicle.
Welte said charges would be filed Monday. At 3 p.m. that day, Garza will make his initial appearance in state District Court and have his bail set, he said.
Welte did not know if Garza had an attorney. Messages left at the jail for him were not immediately returned Saturday.
According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s website, Garza was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery in 2004 and sentenced to four years with the state Department of Corrections. At that time, he gave officials a Crookston address.
He was charged with underage drinking twice in 2003. In one case, he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 percent. The legal limit for drivers in Minnesota and North Dakota is .08 percent.
Authorities did not know why Garza’s license had been revoked.
Olson’s father, Glen, said the four had gone to the Relay for Life in University Park before the crashed occurred. He said his daughter was driving the Pontiac G6 she had bought only three weeks before. “She hadn’t even made the first payment,” he said.
Glen Olson said the car was hit on the rear axle. “The car was six feet wide and there’s about four feet left, it crushed it that badly,” he said.
“Looking at where they were hit, if they had been a split second slower, I’m afraid it would have taken all four of them,” he said.
Badurek was riding shotgun, and Brenno, Olson’s roommate, and Freestone were in the back, police told Olson.
Glen Olson said his daughter broke her jaw and some bones in her neck and wasn’t entirely conscious Saturday, partly because of medication for her pain. “I think she recognized our voices.” She’ll undergo surgery Saturday, he said.
Eric Lillehaugen and Cozy Heigaard-McGurran, Red River High School classmates of Freestone, grieved together Saturday evening at a memorial of flowers and crosses in the grass near the intersection.
“He was a pretty quiet guy, until you got to know him, then you couldn’t get him to stop talking,” Lillehaugen said, while Heigaard-McGurran couldn’t stop her tears, even as she smiled at the memory.
The two came to remember their friend, who was active in music and theater at Red River, just down the block from the accident site. “James was a wonderful person, just was happy,” Heigaard-McGurran said. “He is very, very missed.”
Freestone’s oldest sister said their big family called him “Jimmy,” although from high school on he used “James.”
“On Jimmy’s Facebook page it says, ‘One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.’ And he did,” said Jackie Hoffarth. “He really lived it up and did what he wanted to do. I think the world is going to miss out because he was so talented, singing and his theater.”
Freestone is one of nine siblings, Hoffarth said. “He made friends instantly and he was always laughing. We had a hard time finding a serious picture; he was always goofy and laughing.”
Freestone also had been a student at Northland, according to his Facebook page.
A former Red River High student, Brenno, had just graduated two weeks ago from the adult education center in East Grand Forks, finishing her high school degree.
Katie, a graduate of Central High, was studying occupational therapy at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, and hoped to attend classes this summer to be ready for the fall semester, said Glen Olson.
“That things could move this fast and to have no control over it whatsoever — it’s just unbelievable,” he said. “I feel so bad for the other two kids who lost their life. I don’t know what to say to anybody about that other than ‘My God, how can this happen?’”