Earlier this month we asked our commenters to assist the Waynesboro, VA Police Department in catching the driver in a fatal hit-and-run accident by identifying a part that came off the suspect's car. Within minutes, our amazing commenters identified it as coming from the grille of an early 2000-era Ford F-150 pickup, which was exactly the vehicle police found when they followed a tip yesterday to nearby Rockingham County.
Two suspects are now in custody related to the fatal crash. Police now tell us that Jalopnik commenters help was "critical" to solving the case. Great work team!
Betty Marcelle Wheeler was walking along Rosser Avenue in Waynesboro on April 7th when she was struck by a vehicle and killed. The driver fled, but police found a part of the vehicle they believe struck Wheeler and posted it to the web with the hopes of identifying it.
Shortly after posting the image our readers identified it as part of a Ford F-150 grille, probably from a 2000 year model. We reached out to the local police department, who then used that information to build their case.
Now, less than two weeks later, there are two suspects in custody and the WPD. said they're grateful to the information that led them to the men involved.
"Without the identification of the vehicle — we obviously may have still gotten the anonymous tip — but I think it all pointed in the right direction so that was critical to the case," Captain Kelly Walker told Jalopnik.
Walker also confirmed that when they arrested the suspects they found the F-150 with the missing grille piece and it fit.
Having worked prior hit-and-run accidents, Captain Walker says it's often like "looking for a needle in the haystack" trying to piece the parts together.
"To have someone who is familiar with the parts of automobiles that can say 'Oh, well, that is from this make, this model, this year range' is very helpful," says Walker.
Here's a chronology of what happened courtesy of the Waynesboro Police:
On 04/16/12, Detectives from the Waynesboro Police Department received an anonymous tip pertaining to the fatal hit and run traffic crash that occurred on 04/07/12. Based on the anonymous tip and other information developed during the course of the investigation, Waynesboro Detectives were able to determine that the suspect vehicle was a 2000 Ford F-150 pickup truck.
On 04/17/12 Waynesboro Detectives contacted the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office and requested assistance with pursuing additional leads in Rockingham County. A 2000 Ford F-150 matching the description provided by the anonymous tipster was subsequently located in the 2200 block of Tan Bark Drive in Rockingham County. Probable cause was presented to the Magistrate, and a search warrant was obtained for the vehicle. The vehicle was then seized, transported back to Waynesboro, and processed for additional evidence.
Waynesboro Detectives, assisted by the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office, continued to follow up on additional leads late into the evening on 04/17/12 related to the occupants of the hit and run vehicle. As a result of the investigation, a warrant was obtained and served on 27 year old Juan M. Gonzalez-Vasquez of Harrisonburg for being a passenger of the vehicle and failing to report an accident which resulted in a person being killed or injured. This offense is a Class 6 Felony under VA. Code Section 46.2-895.
On 04/18/12 Detectives returned to Rockingham County to follow up on additional leads. As a result of their investigation, 21 year old Victor A. Espinoza of Harrisonburg was charged for being the driver of the vehicle and failing to report an accident involving injury or death. This offense is a Class 5 Felony under VA. Code Section 46.2-894.
Both men are currently being held in jail without bond.
The most important thing is the police managed to find the persons likely responsible and bring them to justice. Hopefully, this also also helps bring the family some measure of closure.
"Any time you have an unsolved death in a community it's very difficult for the community to swallow," says Walker. "Being able to piece it together and bring the persons responsible to justice is really big for any community. I really appreciate your help and your readers' help in helping us bring this to a successful resolution."
A lot of great police work went into the quick solving of the crime and Jalopnik commenters were just a small part of it, but we'd like to thank all of our commenters for their quick response. Yet again, you provide us with proof that we have the smartest and most knowledgeable readers in the world. Tip of the hat to all of y'all.