8-year-old killed, 4 children injured after mother backs SUV into kids in driveway

The 8-year-old girl in the soccer jersey saw her brother and friends running in the driveway near the garage, dropped her scooter and dashed to join them. Her mother, who was preparing to load a Ford Expedition for a planned move, began backing up the sport-utility vehicle in the children’s direction.

Prince George’s County Police think that Mariana Cruz-Lopez meant to hit the brakes. But instead, the 33-year-old Lewisdale woman stepped on the gas, crashing into the children and the garage door.

Cruz-Lopez jumped out of the Ford Expedition, screaming, “My kids!” and grabbed her 1-year-old son, who had been buried beneath a barbecue grill. Neighbors and residents of the home worked feverishly to move the garage door and bricks that now covered her daughter. The first-grader at Lewisdale Elementary School was killed, and four other children were injured in the incident Thursday night.

“It’s just a horrific accident,” said Patricia Taitt, a neighbor who ran to the house when she heard the crash. “They [are] always playing, so to see her lying there, her eyes bloody and swollen up, it was just horrible.”

According to police, friends and family members, the other children are expected to survive. Police identified the 8-year-old girl as Natalie Hernandez-Cruz. A 10-year-old boy — identified by his father as Isaac Gonzalez — broke two ribs and suffered head injuries from falling bricks, his father and police said. Cruz-Lopez’s son, who turns 2 Saturday; a 6-year-old boy; and a 7-year-old girl received less-serious injuries, police said.

Police, who are continuing to investigate, have not filed any charges against Cruz-Lopez. Julie Parker, a police spokeswoman, said that investigators found no evidence of drug or alcohol use and thought that the incident was “simply a devastating accident.”

But according to police and court records, Cruz-Lopez did not have a valid driver’s license and had received several traffic tickets in Montgomery County on March 30 — for driving without a license, failing to secure a child under the age of 8 in a safety seat, giving a fake name to a police officer and counts related to defective lighting equipment on her vehicle.

Investigators were working with the state’s attorney’s office to determine if charges might be warranted in Thursday’s incident, Parker said.

On Friday, the garage door of the modest, two-story brick house in the 2200 block of Hannon Street was smashed in, a splotch of dried blood on its white surface. A large pile of bricks and dust sat beneath it, not far from a stroller and two children’s mountain bikes.

Residents of the house and friends described Cruz-Lopez as a hardworking single mother who is from Chiapas, Mexico, and has lived in the D.C. area for nearly a decade. Cruz-Lopez worked various cleaning jobs, including one at Nationals Park and another at a local bowling alley. She spent her free time taking her kids to the park or the community pool, the friends said, and picked her children up from school every day.

“She is mom and dad to those children,” said Margarita Calderon, who lived in the house with Cruz-Lopez and would sometimes babysit for her. “This is killing her. Right now, she’s not in her five senses. It is horrible.”

Even before the crash, the day had been an unusual one for the residents of the home. Cruz-Lopez, who lived in one of the three basement bedrooms, was being evicted by a woman who was living in the home and leasing it from someone else, according to police, family friends and the home’s owner.

After a confrontation with that woman while she was moving out, Cruz-Lopez called police, said Maj. Robert Brewer, commander of the District 1 Station.

Brewer said that officers went to the house and mediated the dispute — which seemed to center on people wanting to clean the basement where Cruz-Lopez had lived — and “nobody was overly excited” when they left. Minutes later, about 8:45 p.m., they were sent back because of the crash, police officials said.

Calderon and other residents of the house said that Cruz-Lopez was backing up in the driveway to load belongings into the Expedition when she inadvertently stepped on the gas. Maximino Mendez, 28, who lives in the house with his father, said that he was upstairs watching TV when he heard a boom and that he ran downstairs to find two women trying to lift the smashed garage door. He said that Cruz-Lopez wailed as he pulled her young son from beneath the barbecue grill.

“She was screaming, ‘My kids! My kids!’ ” Mendez said. “She was in shock.”

About an hour and a half earlier, Mendez had been playing soccer with Natalie as she wore her Barcelona jersey, he said. Mendez’s father, who goes by the same name as his son, said the girl had also been zipping around the yard on her scooter, though she cast it aside soon before the crash because she wanted to join the other children in the driveway.

At Lewisdale Elementary School, psychologists and counselors moved from classroom to classroom Friday morning, breaking the news of what happened. The students talked to the grief counselors about their classmate, then wrote letters to her. One read “I’m going to miss my best friend,” Principal Patricia Haith Belgrave said.

Natalie, who was known for her smile, loved to play with her friends and go to the park, school officials said. She struggled to learn English, but she had a positive attitude as she continued to grasp the language, her teacher said.

“She would run around chasing butterflies,” said Dominique Barnes, who is a first-grade teacher at the school and supervises students during recess. “That was the new thing.”

Police did not identify those who were injured, and they said they were still exploring their precise relationships to the home and to one another. Residents of the house said that the 6-year-old boy was the son of another woman who lived there and that Gonzalez and the 7-year-old girl were church friends who were visiting.

In an interview from the hospital, Tony Gonzalez, a pastor at Casa de Dios Puerta del Cielo in Wheaton, said his wife and son, 10-year-old Isaac Gonzalez, were visiting residents of the home at the time of the crash. He said that his son is expected to survive and that some of the other children were expected to be released Friday.

“This is very hard, very difficult,” he said.

Staff writers Theresa Vargas and Ovetta Wiggins and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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