A Racing Audi. A Family Out For Ice Cream. A High Speed NC Crash Changed Them Forever.

By Ames Alexander

Santiago Lagunas remembers car lights flying toward him, seemingly out of nowhere. He remembers the sickening sound of smashing metal.

Then nothing.

When Lagunas awoke after getting knocked out that night in late June, “all I heard was people screaming,” he said. He scrambled into the backseat of his mangled Nissan Altima to reach his six-year-old son, Liam. The boy wasn’t moving.

After seeing the wreckage, two men stopped to help pull Liam out of the car. They laid him on the ground near a highway guardrail, where one of the good Samaritans started CPR.

“I asked him to wake up so many times,” his father said weeks after the crash, his face wet with tears. “But he never did. That changed my life. It changed everything.”

Street racing killed Liam Lagunas, police say.

Liam Lagunas - 1.JPG
Liam Lagunas made the most of Myrtle Beach during a trip to celebrate his sixth birthday in July 2020. Photo courtesy of Liam's family

Right before the crash, two drivers on the opposite side of U.S. 74 were racing at 100 mph in Gaston County when they collided, a Highway Patrol crash report says. One of the racing vehicles crossed the grass median and smashed head-on

into Lagunas’ car.

Police charged Donnie Ray Cobb — the driver who lost control of his Audi — with second-degree murder, driving while impaired and other offenses.

That was far from Cobb’s first encounter with the criminal justice system. Starting in the 1990s, he has been charged with dozens of offenses, ranging from impaired driving to felony larceny and breaking and entering.

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Cobb also had a history of getting off easy on speeding charges before losing control of his car that night.

His experiences with the court system aren’t unique. A Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer investigation this year found that extreme speeding is rampant on many North Carolina roads, and that the consequences can be deadly.

Despite that, North Carolina’s courts let thousands of those extreme speeders off easy.

All too often, high-speed crashes kill children. More than 420 children were killed in high-speed crashes in North Carolina over the past decade, a new Observer analysis of state data shows.

Most of the young victims were between the ages of 13 and 17, but a third of them were younger. About 40 of those kids died in wrecks involving cars traveling 100 mph or more.

Liam’s parents are separated, but they are united in this: They intend to speak out in favor of tougher penalties for speeding and street racing. Someone, they say, must better protect people from drivers like Cobb.

“These people are getting slaps on the wrist and are being told it’s OK,” said Brandi Birrittier, Liam’s mother. “We need to put a stop to this.”

Cobb, she said, “has just been given way too many chances.”

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Donnie Ray Cobb, shortly after the June 26 crash that killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas. Gaston County Sheriff's Office

Long trail of traffic charges

Shortly after 9 pm on Saturday, June 26, Lagunas buckled Liam into his car seat after taking the boy out for ice cream in Gastonia.

Traffic was light that night as they set off for Lagunas’ home in Kings Mountain. He was driving the speed limit, police say.

Cobb, also from Kings Mountain, was approaching from the other direction.

On Facebook pages, Cobb described himself as a “journeyman plumber” and called himself by the nickname, “outlaw.”

Liam’s family members called him something else: a time bomb about to explode.

He had drugs in his system as he steered his 2013 Audi coupe east on U.S. 74, according to the Highway Patrol. Authorities have not yet disclosed what he’d taken.

By then, he had been convicted of DWI at least three times, in 1997, 2001 and 2007. His license had been suspended more than a dozen times.

And he had racked up speeding charge after speeding charge, N.C. court and DMV records show. Courts reduced or dismissed the large majority of those speeding charges.

In the months since the crash, Cobb has been in prison, awaiting trial and getting medical care for his injuries from the wreck. His attorney, Brent Ratchford, said neither he nor Cobb would talk with a Charlotte Observer reporter about that night or what occurred before. Gaston County District Attorney Travis Page also declined to discuss Cobb or the charges against him.

Despite his many past arrests, Cobb’s driver’s license was not suspended on the night of the crash.

He was “driving a weapon” as he headed east on U.S. 74 that night, Liam’s mother said.

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Gracie Eaves Gaston County Sheriff's Office

Shortly before 9:30 p.m, Cobb stepped on the gas to pass a Dodge Challenger that had just passed him, according to Highway Patrol Trooper Ray Pierce. Soon, Cobb and the other driver — 20-year-old Gracie Eaves — were “off to the races,” Pierce said, their vehicles reaching 100 mph as they roared down the road.

After the racing cars sideswiped, Cobb lost control of his Audi, which hurled across the grassy median and into the westbound lanes.

Head-on into Lagunas’ Altima.

Recurring nightmare

Liam’s father was knocked out by the impact. When he woke up, his arms were bleeding and his body was covered with broken glass. The Altima was demolished. Cobb’s Audi was in flames.

Unable to open his car door, Lagunas climbed into the back seat to help Liam.

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Santiago Lagunas still wears a neck brace, months after the crash that badly injured him and killed his 6-year old son, Liam. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Matt Templin, a 28-year-old Gastonia resident, was one of the strangers who stopped after spotting Lagunas’ wrecked black Altima in the right lane. The car was pointed in the wrong direction.

Templin and a friend placed an unconscious Liam on the ground near the highway guardrail. Certified in CPR, he did chest compressions until the ambulance arrived.

“I was just trying to get him back,” Templin said.

By the time paramedics arrived, the child seemed to have a faint pulse. Templin sat silently by the side of the road, thinking about Liam — and about his own 8-year-old daughter.

Finally, a state trooper let him know that Liam had a pulse and was breathing. “I just broke down in tears,” Templin recalled.

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A hubcap is among the debris scattered along below a guardrail at the site where 6-year-old Liam Lagunas was fatally injured in June. Jeff Siner [email protected]

But the relief was short-lived.

After the ambulance came, Lagunas called Liam’s mother. Birrittier remembers him saying they’d been in an accident.

Is Liam OK? she asked. Lagunas didn’t know. An ambulance was taking Liam to Caromont Regional Medical Center in Gastonia, he told her.

Birrittier arrived at the hospital before the ambulance did. She was beside herself.

“I just cried out for Liam,” she said. “I just cried, ‘My baby!’ ”

Liam was rushed from there to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. It wasn’t long before a doctor came out to say there was nothing anyone could do.

“There was so much internal damage,” his mother said, struggling to talk through the tears. “They couldn’t help him.”

For several moments, Birrittier was unable to speak. Later in the interview, she recalled her state of mind that night:

“I didn’t want to be here,” she said. “I wanted to go be with him.”

Ultimately, she chose to persevere. But it hasn’t been easy.

‘He wasn’t scared of anything’

With that crash, the world lost a 6-year-old who was wise and compassionate beyond his years, family members say.

“If he saw a homeless person, he’d ask, ‘Can we pray for him? Can we give him some food?’ ” his father recalled.

Liam would also ask for a dollar — and then promptly hand it over to the homeless person.

“He’d say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to help them,’ ” his father said.

To his grandmother, Wendy Snyder-Salazar, Liam “was like an angel on Earth.”

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Wendy Snyder-Salazar wipes tears from her eyes as she talks about her 6-year old grandson, Liam Lagunas, who in June was killed in a Gaston County crash. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Liam was also a bit of a daredevil. He spent many of his playtime hours climbing trees, practicing taekwondo and riding his bike and skateboard.

He started swimming at age 2. And by the time he was 4, he was already doing flips off the high board and diving to the bottom of the 12-foot-deep public pool in Bessemer City.

“He wasn’t scared of anything,” his mother said.

He tried to help others conquer their anxieties, too. Just hours before the crash, Liam was at Carowinds, helping his grandmother cope with her fear of heights as they waited in line to ride a waterslide.

“Don’t be scared Grandma,” Liam told her.

During a birthday trip to Myrtle Beach last summer, his mother treated him to a 10-minute helicopter ride with a company that offers tours over the beach. He was fascinated.

“Where do you eat?” he asked the pilot. “How do you go to the bathroom?”

“He had to know everything,” his mother said.

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Liam beams during helicopter ride over Myrtle Beach. Photo courtesy of Liam's family.

He’d ask weightier questions, too.

“He’d ask what heaven is,” his father said. “And who is God?”

If nicknames are a sign of affection, Liam was well loved.

His mother called him “bebe,” “my love” and “mi amor.” His grandmother called him “chicken nugget” and “my toasted marshmallow.” His father called him “champion” and “Bochocho”

The online Urban Dictionary defines Bochocho this way: “(adj.) a casual slang used to describe the awe and wonder of a highly unlikely or near implausible occurrence beyond average circumstances.”

‘Too beautiful for this world’

Liam’s father was hospitalized for a week after the crash. More than a month later, he was still struggling.

During an interview with an Observer reporter, Lagunas wore a neck brace and moved gingerly. Doctors, he said, found damage to his neck, spine and shoulder after the crash. He was having trouble lying down, getting up from bed and walking, he said. He could not work or drive.

But physical ailments were only part of what tormented him.

“Every time I get in a car, I start looking around. And that moment starts coming into my head again,” he said. “Every time I get in the car, I feel like it’s going to happen again.”

Three days after the tragedy, Liam’s friends and family members gathered at the crash site for a candlelight vigil. They stood near a makeshift roadside memorial with toys, stuffed animals and one of Liam’s taekwondo medals hanging from a wooden cross.

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Family and friends created this memorial along U.S. 74 in Gaston County to remember 6-year old Liam Lagunas, who was killed at the site in June. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Just yards away, demolished car parts — apparently from the wreck that killed Liam — were strewn on the bank behind a guardrail. Lying amid the wreckage: A chunk of an owner’s manual for a 2013 Audi coupe.

Liam was buried on July 12 in northern New Jersey, where many members of his extended family live.

His family is still enduring a world of pain.

“When you lose a child, there’s no greater grief in the world than that,” his grandmother said. “It’s like a shot in your heart. And that hole is never going to be replaced. It’s always empty.”

“There will never be another Liam,” his mother said. “He was too beautiful for this world.”

Speaking up for others

Scores of North Carolina motorists keep driving after they are repeatedly charged with extreme speeding. It’s happening partly because overwhelmed prosecutors and judges allow it, the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer investigation published in June found.

When people are charged with driving 20 mph or more over the speed limit, nearly 92% get breaks in court that allow them to avoid the full penalties, the investigation documented. One key reason: In North Carolina’s overwhelmed courts, speeding charges often take a back seat to offenses that prosecutors view as more serious.

Over the past five years, more than 75 drivers who had extreme-speeding charges reduced or dismissed were later involved in fatal crashes, a review of state records revealed. And thousands of drivers have been charged with extreme speeding again and again.

New research has confirmed what experts suspect: Repeat speeders in North Carolina are more likely to become involved in wrecks.

Among those cited for speeding three times in a year in North Carolina, 43 percent were involved in a crash within a year of their most recent charge, found Arthur Goodwin, a researcher with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. That was nearly three times higher than the crash rate for those cited just once for speeding.

The current system is ill-equipped to deal with repeat speeders, Goodwin said.

“And repeat offenders know this,” he said. “They know where the holes are — and they know how to exploit them.”

Some prosecutors — including Cleveland County District Attorney Mike Miller — say they try to take a firm stance with drivers who repeatedly flout the law.

“We try to look out for chronic speeders,” Miller said. “Because we know speeding can lead to wrecks — and some of those are fatal.”

Under North Carolina law, there’s little that authorities can do to keep chronic speeders off highways for long.

While the most egregious speeding offenses can cause drivers to lose their licenses for up to one year, most speeding convictions don’t result in license suspensions. Driver’s licenses can be suspended for a variety of offenses in North Carolina, but they can’t be permanently revoked, said Ike Avery, a retired top lawyer for the State Highway Patrol.

“There’s really no way to keep people from doing stupid things in a car — unless they’re in jail,” said Avery, who now teaches a traffic law class at Campbell University.

So high-speed wrecks bring anguish to dozens of families in North Carolina each year. Among the children and teenagers who lost their lives in high-speed crashes last year:

June 22, 2020: Four teenagers died after the driver of their speeding car lost control on I-40 in Greensboro. The car was going 100 mph before it flew off the road and slammed into a tree, according to a state Highway Patrol crash report.

July 3, 2020: Authorities say a car going 120 mph on Interstate 485 in Charlotte rear-ended a box truck, triggering a collision that killed five people — including two sisters who were just 9 and 12.

July 18, 2020: Three people — including two girls ages 7 and 11 — lost their lives after a crash in Edgecombe County caused by a drunk driver who was going more than 110 mph, authorities say.

Liam’s family knows the pain. They are working through it as they strive to honor his memory.

“Every day I try to be the person he’d want me to be,” Lagunas said. “A better Dad. A better person.”

Birrittier wants to honor her son by fighting the temptation to be vengeful or hateful — and by “speaking up for justice.”

She plans to fight for tougher penalties for drivers who race on public streets. If she has her way, North Carolina lawmakers will craft and pass a reform measure that she calls “Liam’s Law.”

“If I don’t spread Liam’s message and his story, it could happen to anybody,” she said.

Charlotte Observer database reporter Gavin Off, McClatchy senior motions graphics producer Sohail Al-Jamea, and McClatchy senior experience designer Aaron Albright contributed to this story.

This story was originally published October 1, 2021 6:00 AM.

Source : https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/crime/article253207173.html

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