On November 8th, 2011, two missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Donna, Texas. A third missionary was reported to have been critically injured and was hospitalized, but has now been released.
Elders Trevor Reinhold Strong, 21, of Taylorsville, Utah, Derek Jason Walker, 20, of Fairfield, Idaho, and Zachary Todd Harris, 19, of Huntsville, Alabama, all serving in the Texas McAllen Mission, were riding their bicycles northbound on Midway South St. near Vaughn Road, just south of Business Route 83 around 7:30 P.M. when a vehicle driven by Jose Luis Garza traveling southbound crossed the center line to attempt to pass another vehicle and hit all three missionaries head-on. Garza and his two passengers fled the scene on foot. Elders Strong and Walker were pronounced dead, while Elder Harris was taken to a hospital injured, and has since been released. Police used helicopters in an attempt to track down the vehicle's occupants. Old news video from KRGV Channel 5 still available; updated news video from KSL Channel 5 embedded below (after the jump):
Here's raw video of the accident scene provided by KGBT Channel 4 (a number of people are expressing objection to the video in the comments section of the website, but taking the video down would not resurrect the missionaries):
Update: The driver involved, now identified as Jose Luis Garza, surrendered to authorities at the Progreso International Bridge overnight. Garza claims he didn't see the missionaries because his headlights were malfunctioning, although the missionaries had lights on their bicycles. He's now been charged with two felony counts of failure to stop and render aid, and is being held on $100,000 bond. Police also confirm that the suspect is a Mexican national, but have not disclosed his residency status. Two more suspects remain on the run.
A comment posted on KSL by someone who lives in Donna, TX provides some insight on the road and traffic conditions:
Taekwondo_dude November 9th 8:30 A.M:
First of all, my heart goes out to the families of these missionaries. I am still in shock. I live half of mile from where the incident occurred. I met Elders Strong and Walker about 3 weeks ago, when they had dinner in my home. Elder Strong told me he was going home soon. I know that people are angry and some suggest it might have been intentional. In no way am I defending the cowards who took the lives of these missionaries, but I just want to shed a little insight about the area, and what witnesses saw. Midway Road splits the two towns of Weslaco and Donna. It is a paved, narrow, country road, with barely enough room for 2 cars side by side. It is also pitch black at night in some parts. According to witnesses, the culprits in the black car decided to pass the car in front of them, and as they did, they ran into the 3 missionaries, head on, at a very high rate of speed. It was around 7:30 pm, and with the new time change, it was already dark. I cringe whenever I see missionaries on their bikes at night, in these areas.
Based upon his blog, Elder Strong first entered the Provo Missionary Training Center on October 28th, 2009. This means his mission was about to come to a close when this accident happened. What a tragedy! A person named Yeffy posted a comment to the KSL story confirming that Elder Strong was due to come home in a month and has a twin brother, Scott, serving in the Tucson mission. In fact, Trevor Strong was already supposed to be home -- except he volunteered to extend his mission by three weeks so he could help with the training of a couple of missionaries as well as complete work with a couple of families.
As for Derek Jason Walker, he still had a year to go on his mission. According to President Michael Owsley of the Wendell Idaho Stake (his home stake), Elder Walker had just been made senior companion, and he volunteered to make a presentation during the training, and did a great job with his presentation. Elder Walker left this world doing the two things he loved most: riding his bike and serving the Lord.
According to Mission President Stephen Trayner, Elder Zachary Harris, who's only been in Texas for five months, will not be returning home to Alabama; he says he still has work to do in South Texas for the remaining 19 months of his mission. While Elder Harris was also hit by the errant motorist, his injuries proved not to be serious, and he was released from the hospital earlier. Elder Harris is walking with a noticeable limp, and he has some bruising and swelling and some lacerations.
President Trayner paid further tribute to the missionaries, saying "This is not the normal course of events. They were outstanding young men, and I would have been very proud to have them for my sons. But we believe that when someone has been faithful and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ that your work will continue beyond death. And we firmly believe we will be together in another life and have the chance to be with loved ones forever in the presence of God." There are 176 missionaries assigned to south Texas, and approximately one-half of them travel by bicycle.
I have added the names of Elders Strong and Walker to my partial list of LDS missionaries who died while serving in the field. I would bet the driver and his passengers most likely fall into one of three categories:
(1). Illegal aliens or other foreign nationals who don't want to get caught. Donna, Texas is only about five miles from the border. The surrender of the driver greatly increases this possibility.
(2). The driver was drunk and was afraid he would be charged with DUI if he stuck around. This possibility cannot be excluded, since the time interval between the accident and Garza's surrender would allow alcohol to clear his system.