Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera

Police defend search efforts after failing to find missing couple until weeks later, despite 911 call on the night they vanished

The Wilmington Police Department in North Carolina has concluded its investigation into the disappearance and death of two women found deceased inside a car earlier this month.

As CrimeOnline previously reported, authorities confirmed on May 5 that a grey Dodge Dart found in a wooded area in Wilmington on May 4 belonged to Paige Escalera, one of two women reported missing two weeks prior. Two decomposed bodies found inside the vehicle were of Escalera and her fiance, Stephanie Mayorga.

The couple left their apartment on April 15 and hadn’t been seen since. On the same night, a truck driver called 911 and said he witnessed a car speeding through a stop sign at the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection in Wilmington. The caller said it appeared as if the driver hit into a wall.

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“This is like really serious,” the caller said. “There’s a stop sign. The car didn’t stop at the stop sign and kept driving so fast. I was seeing it with my back mirror. I was already passed the car, you know? And I was seeing it with my back mirror. The car smashed the wall there.”

First responders, including fire personnel, police, and EMT workers, showed up to the scene quickly, but after eight minutes, they left after they couldn’t find anything. Friends and loved ones later questioned why law enforcement failed to return to the scene the following morning, when the area would have been more visible.

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Deputy Chief Ben Kennedy announced at a press conference earlier this week that authorities didn’t find any signs of a visible crash when they arrived at the scene on April 15.

“When they began to inspect the area for damage, they found no skid marks, the wall had not been damaged, and there was no damage to the trees or brush in that area,” Kennedy said. “No lights were seen, there was no smoke, noise, or anything coming from the crash site.”

Kennedy added that during the search, the officers were dispatched about a robbery and “shots fired,” which turned out to be a homicide. Police left the crash area at that point. Kennedy did not explain why no one returned to the crash scene the following day to search further.

When officers found the car on May 4, they noted faint tire prints on the curb of the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection in Wilmington, which were previously missed on April 15, when officers searched the area around midnight.

What Caused the Crash?

“We believe the women were traveling west on Independence Boulevard between 102 and 103 miles per hour when they hit the curb to the left of the Watermark Marina entrance and went airborne,” Deputy Chief Alex Sotelo said, according to Star News Online.

Sotelo added that security footage obtained by police showed the women buying a 12-pack of beer from a convenience store at around 10:49 p.m. that night. Security footage taken at their apartment complex showed one of the women holding a beer bottle as she exited the apartment. Further, police said they found empty beer bottles inside Escalera’s car.

Police said when they found the women, they were so badly deteriorated that a toxicology report likely would not have helped, but based on the evidence, it’s probable that alcohol, coupled with speeding, is what caused the crash.

“The cause of death for both women has been ruled the result of traumatic head and chest injuries sustained in the crash,” Sotelo said.

Data from the car indicated that when it struck the curb, the car battery broke in half. In turn, there were no noises or lights coming from the car that could have helped authorities find the women, Sotelo explained.

“The ground slopes down in that area, which put the Dodge Dart 20 feet above ground level as it continued forward between the trees, traveling between 97 and 101 mph. It then hit the ground 115 feet away from the road and skidded forward until it collided with a tree 150 feet off the roadway.”

Sotelo added that the car then submerged into a marshy area, “with only a small section of the roof visible from up above.” Officers then had to hack through the area with a machete before they found the car “hidden in an area of thick vegetation.”

Returning to the Scene

Police were not aware that the women were missing until April 19. The women’s roommate apparently waited several days to file a missing persons report because she thought she had to wait at least 72 hours from the time they disappeared.

Sotelo said police utilized boats and helicopters and spent two weeks searching for the women, mainly in areas near their apartment. According to the Star News Online, the women’s apartment is over six miles away from the crash scene.  Authorities returned to the scene on May 4, when they decided to investigate the 911 call again.

Sotelo added that around 1,600 hours were spent searching for the couple.

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[Feature Photo: Police Handout]