WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT/PORT CITY DAILY) - A Superior Court judge has ordered the Wilmington Police Department to release footage from the night Wilmington couple Paige Escalera and Stephanie Mayorga went missing. The judge is also considering the release of video from weeks later, when their car was located.
On Tuesday, Judge Phyllis Gorham heard a petition request filed by WECT and Port City Daily to release two batches of law enforcement videos. The first batch is from April 15, the night Escalera and Mayorga went missing. The second batch is from May 4, the day WPD recovered Escalera’s vehicles and the women’s bodies.
WPD did not object to the release of the first batch and Judge Gorham ordered it released; however, WPD objected strongly to the release of the second batch, citing the families’ concerns and saying the request was ‘curiosity’ and not a matter of compelling public interest.
WECT and Port City Daily argued that questions remain about the search for Escalera and Mayorga, left unanswered by a prerecorded WPD press ‘briefing’ that didn’t allow for media questions, leading to hundreds of social media comments, emails, and phone calls asking for further investigation by local news outlets.
WECT and Port City Daily showed those comments to the judge as a basis for the release of the video and also highlighted recent calls from the public for more transparency from law enforcement in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The video from April 15, the night of the women’s disappearance, includes about two minutes of dash-cam footage from a squad car and just under 11 minutes of body camera footage. While the dash-cam provided little new information, the bodycam footage shows an interaction with the man who called 911 to report a vehicle, later learned to be Escalara’s, traveling at high speed down Independence Boulevard towards River Road. It also shows the hectic nature of the night, as multiple calls come in over the radio, including a deadly shooting and two armed robberies.
After calling 911, the man stayed by the side of the road until officers arrived, telling them emphatically that the car did not make the turn onto River Road and disappeared into the tree line on the western side of the road. Once they returned to their car, officers discussed a different theory, considering whether the car could have simply pulled into a nearby gated community.
While the video shows officers driving along River Road looking for indications of the car, the officer whose body camera recorded the response does not get out of his vehicle again. It is not known if other officers who responded did so, as it appears there were only the two recordings from that night.
Wilmington Police said in their briefing on the investigation nine emergency responders searched the scene.
As the officers drive on River Road, multiple calls for response, including two armed robberies and a deadly shooting, are heard on the radio in rapid succession. One of the officers can be heard saying, “And we’re looking for a phantom car crash.” A little less than three minutes later, the officer clears the scene, dispersing other units on the scene.
Before closing the hearing, Judge Gorham said she would subject the footage from May 4 to an ‘in-camera review,’ considering arguments from WECT and Port City Daily, as well as those made by WPD’s attorney.
A law passed in 2016 in North Carolina regulates the release of law enforcement video. On several occasions now, our newsrooms have petitioned the court and argued for the release of these types of videos.