DESERT CENTER: 4 local residents, including 2 beloved coaches, killed in head-on wreck with big rig
DESERT CENTER — Family, friends and loved ones throughout southwest Riverside County and beyond are mourning the deaths of four local residents who died yesterday in a head-on, traffic collision, involving a small sedan and a big rig. The four killed in the wreck were all in the sedan and included three women from Murrieta and a man from Corona.
According to the victim’s families, two of those who died in the collision were soccer coaches at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills, as well as coaches for CDA Slam, a Glendora-based youth soccer league.
The fatal wreck happened Monday, May 29, on Highway 177 – also known as Rice Road – 19 miles north of Desert Center.
Highway 177 connects the 10 Freeway and Highway 62, north of Coxcomb Monument Road and east of Joshua Tree National Park.
The three female victims from Murrieta all reportedly died at the scene of the crash, officials from the California Highway Patrol’s Indio office said the evening of the collision.
The fourth occupant of the vehicle, a Corona resident who was driving the sedan with the three women at the time of the accident, later died after being airlifted to the Corona Regional Medical Center, after firefighters extricated him from the destroyed car.
Many news agencies have reported Hodges was airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Center; however according to a coroner’s release, he was transported to and died at Corona Regional Medical Center. A message left at the coroner’s office for clarification has not yet been returned.
Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner officials later identified the four victims as 20-year-old, Gabrielle “Gabby” Constante and Marissa Garnica; and 21-year-old, Jessica Giraldo. The three women were all Murrieta residents and graduates of Vista Murrieta High School. All three were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident at 4:10 p.m.
Coroner officials identified the driver as 30-year-old, Corona resident, Matthew Hodges. According to officials, Hodges died at 5:51 p.m., about two hours after the accident was reported.
Eleven firefighters from three engine companies responded to the accident shortly before 3:15 p.m., Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said in an incident report after the fatal crash. They were assisted by a Riverside County Volunteer Chaplain. Six California Highway Patrol officers were also sent to investigate the fatal wreck and assist with traffic control.
When they arrived, emergency first responders found the destroyed wreckage of a 2012 Toyota Corolla and a 1999 Freightliner tractor-trailer semi-truck.
Firefighter/paramedics immediately began evaluating and treating the four people from the wrecked sedan. All four had sustained major, traumatic injuries in the crash.
Despite life-saving efforts, all three of the female car passengers succumbed to their injures and died at the scene of the crash, CHP officials explained after the deadly wreck.
Hodges, who suffered massive head trauma in the accident was clinging to life and trapped inside the mangled wreckage of the car.
Firefighters used the “Jaws of Life” to perform a cut and rescue operation to free the injured man from the sedan, which was all but recognizable after the impact between the two vehicles.
Once the mortally injured driver was extricated from the vehicle, he was transported by Mercy Air Ambulance to CRMC, where he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead by hospital staff.
While medical personnel were treating the victims, CHP officers investigated the cause of the deadly crash.
During their investigation, officials determined Hodges and his three female passengers were traveling southbound on Highway 177 “at an undetermined rate of speed” when several witnesses say he attempted to pass other, slower moving vehicles along the two lane highway.
When Hodges veered into the northbound lane, his small sedan smashed head-on with the oncoming big rig.
Officials identified the semi-truck driver as 55-year-old, Phillip Barnnett, from Afton, OK. He was reportedly uninjured in the crash.
According to CHP officials, both Barnett and Hodges were wearing their seat belts at the time of the collision. Officials are still trying to determine if any of the Toyota’s three passengers were wearing seat belts when the crash happened.
Neither alcohol nor drug intoxication on the parts of either drivers are suspected to be contributing factors in the deadly crash, CHP officials said.
Heavy holiday weekend traffic, passing slower moving vehicles,
believed to have led to deadly crash
One key witness to the collision, Oregon resident Brian Mumey, who was traveling through California while on vacation, talked about the accident in a telephone interview the day after the collision.
Mumey, a retired U.S. Army infantryman and former Marine, described that in spite of the heavier than normal holiday traffic, vehicles were continuously passing other vehicles – including the Toyota carrying Hodges and his passengers – who passed Mumey just minutes before the collision.
Other witnesses also later told officials they had seen Hodges passing other vehicles.
“I was just shocked at the way people were driving in spite of all the traffic,” Mumey explained. “There was all the holiday traffic, trucks pulling boats and trailers, big rigs and then all these cars and trucks using oncoming lanes to pass on the two lane highway,” Mumey explained.
“With the number of people passing other vehicles, all I could think was, This is crazy. Somebody’s gonna get killed,” said Mumey.
Just minutes later, Mumey and several other motorists witnessed the southbound sedan abruptly swerve around another slower moving vehicle. The car crossed the center line into the oncoming lane of traffic, where it almost immediately smashed head-on with the northbound big rig.
“We were on a long straightaway with no hills or curves to obstruct the view,” Mumey explained. “I could see the oncoming truck clearly from where I was, as plain as day.”
“When (Hodges) suddenly pulled out into the opposing lanes of traffic, he was probably less than 30 meters from the oncoming truck,” said Mumey, who estimated that once Hodges swerved in front of the big rig “he probably had less than two seconds to react.”
The “explosive impact” of the two vehicles launched car and truck parts and debris as far as 100 yards along the long stretch of desert highway, Mumey and CHP officials described.
“With the amount of carnage and debris that flew through the air, it looked like an IED went off,” said Mumey, who said he survived an improvised explosive device blast during one of his multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The impact ripped the roof off the car and crumpled it like an accordion.”
The semi-truck also sustained major damage from the collision, which reportedly tore off the right front wheel and caused at least one of the big rig’s two fuel saddle tanks to rupture, spilling diesel fuel across the roadway, according to CHP officials.
The majority of damage to the truck was to the right front side, where the truck impacted the front right side of the sedan.
The crash left the semi-truck inoperable and it was later towed from the scene by a wrecker.
In the aftermath of the collision, Mumey and other motorists stopped to help checked on the truck driver and the three female Toyota occupants, while other witnesses called 911 to report the accident.
According to Mumey, when he checked, Hodges was the only one of the four occupants from the car who was still alive after the tremendous impact. Mumey said he provided medical aid to Hodges by applying direct pressure to a severe head wound the seriously injured man sustained in the crash.
“There honestly wasn’t much else I could do but be there to comfort (Hodges),” Mumey said.
“This was just so tragic and unnecessary,” the retired soldier and former marine explained after the fatal wreck. “I’m not trying to judge (Hodges) and maybe it will turn out he had a stroke, heart attack or some other medical emergency or condition that led to the accident, but otherwise, this was simply a tragedy that didn’t have to happen and could have been avoided.”
An entire community in mourning
With news of the four deaths spreading across the Internet, community and among other scholastic and youth soccer organizations; family, friends, co-workers and other coaches whose soccer teams had played against Hodges and Constante’s league soccer teams, as well as current and former students who played for the two coaches took to social media to express and share their grief over the unexpected and tragic loss.
According to devastated family and friends, Hodges and Constante were both soccer coaches at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills. Both were also coaches for the Glendora-based youth soccer program – Legends Football Club.
Hodges had recently finished his fourth year coaching girls soccer at Ayala High School, said Hodges family members.
Constante, who was a senior and a biology major at University of La Verne, was not only a soccer coach she had also played on the La Verne Leopards women’s as well as her high school’s soccer teams. She had reportedly just finished her second season as a coach at Ayala High School.
In a Facebook post the day after the accident, LFC officials shared the sad news and their grief about their two coaches’ deaths, explaining, “The entire Legends staff is in mourning.”
“It is with great sorrow and sadness that we are writing this message to you all,” the message said in part. “The Legends Family was dealt life altering news when two of our coaches, Gaby Constante and Matt Hodges, were involved in a major car accident that resulted in their passing later this evening.”
Throughout the evening of the fatal wreck and into the following day, LFC members received condolences and well-messages from other youth soccer clubs from throughout California and as far away as France, England, Germany and Africa.
Local and International soccer teams and organizations such as Murrieta Surf, Sand and Surf, Arizona, Orange Junior, Chelsea, Team USA, BYSC-Corona, Fontana and Anaheim Surf Soccer Clubs, as well as Beach, Arsenal and Mansfield United Football Clubs all sent condolences to the LFC members and families.
For the families of those who were lost in the accident, all the uplifting social media messages have helped show how much the four victims were loved and appreciated and how much they will be missed, one friend of the family explained in an email.
According to another family member who has been responding to many of the social media comments, the outpouring of love and support has helped soften the blow; however, as she said, “Nothing will ever make this any easier and nothing will ever bring (the four victims) back to us.”
CHP’s investigation into the fatal crash is ongoing.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Trevor Montgomery runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers, Valley News and Anza Valley Outlook and also writes for Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.
Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg and breaking his back in an off-duty accident.
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.
Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.
Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.