WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT and PORT CITY DAILY) - A Superior Court judge has ordered the release of additional police videos from the investigation into the disappearance and deaths of Stephanie Mayorga and Paige Escalera. Some of the footage shows the missing women’s vehicle, while obscured from ground-level view, was visible at the time the police drone flew over the scene the day the car was discovered.
The videos, three from a drone and one from inside an officer's cruiser, were viewed by Judge Phyllis Gorham before she ruled on their release.
WECT News and Port City Daily argued the release of the videos was in the compelling public interest given the questions that remained about the case.
The couple went missing on April 15. Later that night, a driver called 911 and reported seeing a car speed by him and smash into a wall near the intersection of River Road and Independence Boulevard.
It wasn't until 19 days later, on May 4, that police found the couple's car in thick vegetation near that intersection.
The newly released drone videos show crews cutting through heavy brush to get to the car. Then, they hook the car to a tow truck which pulls the heavily damaged vehicle out of the woods. Another drone shot shows a 360-degree view of the car once it is out of the woods. In total, WPD released just over 13 minutes of footage from the crash site.
The condition of the car matches what WPD described, showing that the car battery broke in half, which would have shut off any lights or sounds that could have alerted first responders to the crash.
When describing the discovery of the car, which was found after police reviewed 911 calls from the night the women disappeared, Deputy Police Chief Alex Sotelo said in the video briefing, “The Dodge Dart was hidden in an area of thick vegetation, partially submerged in a swamp with only a small section of the roof visible from up above.”
A photo provided by WPD during the video briefing showed the roof of vehicle was only barely visible from the street view.
Video shows the entire roof of the car was visible when the drone flew over on the evening of May 4 which, according to WPD's video evidence archiving system, was taken between 5 and 7 p.m. A WPD spokesperson confirmed that, other than a narrow path into the swampy area around the vehicle, the scene was untouched. According to WPD, after officers located the vehicle, the drone was launched to document the condition of the scene and preempt any concerns that it was altered.
Asked about the apparent discrepancy between Deputy Chief Sotelo's description of the vehicle and the drone video, a WPD spokesperson said that the 'small section of the roof' comment referred to a vantage point near the entrance to the nearby marina. This location is slightly elevated above the swamp below, but does not provide the same clear line of sight that the drone had, according to WPD. Further, WPD noted that the rear end of the vehicle was "submerged" and that the officers who first arrived on the scene were "up to their hip" in muddy water attempting to reach the vehicle.
At the time the drone footage was shot, the tide was nearly at its high point but the vehicle remains completely visible from the drone’s vantage point. According to NOAA’s tides and currents station located by the Cape Fear Memorial bridge, high tide that evening, was near 8 p.m. (with low tide just around 12:30 p.m.)
Release of the video
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.
On June 2, Gorham ordered the release of footage from the response on April 15, the night of the women’s disappearance.
The video showed 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 body cam showed the interaction with the man who called 911 to report a vehicle, later learned to be Escalera’s, traveling at high speed down Independence Boulevard towards River Road.
It also revealed the hectic nature of the night, which included a deadly shooting and two armed robberies. One of the officers can be heard saying, “And we’re looking for a phantom car crash.”
Wilmington Police did not object to the release of the April 15 videos.
However, Assistant City Attorney Daniel Thurston strongly objected strongly to the release of the May 4 videos.
Given concerns about what the videos showed and if the women's remains could be seen, the judge viewed the videos before ordering their release with no redaction.
Thurston also argued against the release of the videos citing concerns from the families of the women, who he said did not want the videos released.
An internal investigation was launched into the response to the 911 call, but no disciplinary action was taken against the officers.
No policy changes have been announced by WPD either.
Escalera’s family urged the department to learn from this terrible experience and make changes so this does not happen to another family.
“What if it was your family?” asked Allison Rice, Escalera’s mother. “The worst thing is we just don’t know if they were alive. She could be alive, both Paige and Stephanie both could have been alive. That’s what really hurts us.”