Wrong-way driver charged with DWI

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This is what was left of the Dodge Stratus whose driver was allegedly drunk and heading south in I-25’s northbound lanes after the Dodge hit a truck Wednesday night near Santa Fe’s St. Francis Drive. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Police)

SANTA FE, N.M. — In the latest of a series of wrong-way wrecks on Interstate 25 in the Santa Fe area, a driver who smashed head-on into a truck, injuring three occupants near St. Francis Drive on Wednesday night, has been charged with aggravated DWI.

Joe Salazar, 52, of Santa Fe, is also charged with having an open container inside the vehicle and reckless driving. The three people in the truck have all been released from a local hospital.

Investigators found an empty bottle of vodka in Salazar’s Dodge Stratus and “think he was drunk when he caused the head-on crash,” according to a statement from the Santa Fe police. Officers have not confirmed whether the vodka was consumed on the evening of the crash or sometime before.

Salazar was seriously injured and will be booked on the charges when he is released from the hospital. He is accused of driving south in the northbound lanes of I-25 when he crashed into the truck just before 8 p.m.

“It was a pretty horrific crash, a high-speed crash that was head-on,” said Santa Fe Emergency Manager Andrew Phelps.

“We really dodged a bullet here,” said Santa Fe police spokeswoman Celina Westervelt. She said so many similar accidents have had tragic consequences “and thank God it didn’t happen in this case.”

The three occupants of the 2011 black Ford pickup truck were two men ages 31 and 39, from Española and Rowe respectively, and a woman, 43, from Pecos. Their names were not released Thursday.

Online state court records don’t show any prior DWIs for Salazar, but he was arrested in 2012 on assault charges, police said.

Santa Fe firefighters had to extricate Salazar from his badly damaged car and they remained at the crash site for about two hours. The northbound lanes of the interstate remained closed until about 3 a.m. Thursday, Phelps said.

The police department’s DWI unit and Fatal Traffic Unit were at the crash site for hours and their investigation continues. New Mexico State Police provided traffic control.

Just before the crash, a tip came in on the state Drunk Busters line saying someone “was driving erratically in the city” and “multiple (police) agencies were searching for the driver,” a city police department’s statement said.

The SFPD’s Westervelt said there also was a Drunk Busters call about a problem driver on I-25 near San Felipe, about 20 miles south of Santa Fe, before the wreck, but it wasn’t known Thursday if that call was related to Wednesday night’s wreck.

Police Chief Ray Rael said the accident should put holiday revelers on notice about the dangers of driving drunk.

“We need to see this as our wake-up call,” Rael said. “The holiday season should be filled with happy memories and celebrations, not tragic losses due to inexcusable and irresponsible decisions made by drunk drivers.”

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Firefighters check the damage to a Dodge Stratus that was traveling the wrong direction in the northbound lanes of Interstate 25 on Wednesday night in Santa Fe when it hit a truck carrying three people. There were no deaths. (Courtesy KOAT)

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