ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies said early on that alcohol was a factor in a fatal and fiery crash near Cuba, but a recently released crash report says a front tire blowout triggered the crash that killed four members of the Crawford family from Aztec.
While the tire blowout sent the truck swerving into oncoming traffic, an investigator with the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office traffic unit wrote in the report that interviews with a tire expert indicated “a sober reasonable person would have been able to gain control of this vehicle if the tire blew up.”
Witnesses said the head-on impact with the Freightliner utility truck, which was towing a Bobcat, caused the Crawfords’ SUV to burst into flames almost immediately. Medical investigators later found the severely burned bodies of Jimmie and Melissa Crawford and their children Grant, 4, and Chace, 2, inside.
Paul Ortega, 47, the driver of the utility truck, was also pronounced dead at the scene, and deputies are awaiting the results of his autopsy, which will show whether he was intoxicated. But deputies wrote that his body smelled of alcohol and listed him on the report as being under the influence of alcohol.
His three passengers – Amador Jacquez, 49, Jacob Martinez, 25, and Daniel Gonzales, 34 – were traveling back to their homes in small northern New Mexico towns after working a landscaping job in Albuquerque. All three were injured and transported to a local hospital. They each reported drinking while Ortega drove, in addition to eating and drinking at a Hooters restaurant before leaving Albuquerque, according to the crash report. None of them said if Ortega had also been drinking in the vehicle. Deputies found Corona and Dos Equis bottles scattered at the crash site.
The case was forwarded to the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, but prosecutors did not recommend charges against the passengers, deputies said.
Federal court documents show that Ortega, who lived in Coyote, had in 2012 been accused of driving an off-highway vehicle drunk on federal Forest Service land in Rio Arriba County. Prosecutors dropped that charge in a plea agreement in exchange for his guilty plea to being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had a previous felony drug conviction, according to court documents.
His family declined to speak with the Journal, but on social media, his friends and loved ones shared memories and favorite photos of the fun-loving, avid motorcyclist. An online obituary said Ortega served in the Army National Guard.
Meanwhile, friends and family of the Crawfords continue to mourn. Jimmie Crawford, 45, recently retired from the Farmington Fire Department and, never one to sit still, had taken a job with a refinery. Melissa was a college athlete who worked as a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom.
She is survived by two young sons, who were not in the SUV that night.
Donations are still pouring in to a GoFundMe account, the Melissa and Jimmie Crawford Memorial, which has raised nearly $49,000.