Elva Pineda lay on Georgia Avenue — her leg crushed, her husband’s Nissan Sentra destroyed, her 4-year-old daughter nowhere to be seen.
“Mi bebe!” the young mother told a paramedic leaning over her. “Mi bebe!”
In an instant, Pineda’s only child, Elizabeth, her husband, Salvador Ramos, and her brother Felipe were killed when two cars — going as fast as 106 mph down Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County, Md. — crashed one after the other into the Sentra. The impact split the Sentra in half, tore out seat belts and propelled the family from the car. The young girl came to rest on a sidewalk, still strapped into her car seat, upside down.
The drivers of the speeding cars — one in a Chevrolet Camaro, the other in a turbo-charged Volkswagen Passat and unknown to each other — had started racing spontaneously, according to authorities, barreling down a stretch of Georgia Avenue bounded by homes where the speed limit is 45 mph.
The crash in 2013 led to a winding, emotional and contentious court case that is set to conclude Monday, when the two drivers are scheduled to be sentenced on three counts each of vehicular manslaughter.
“Every day people lose family members to accidents like this one,” Pineda, 34, said in an interview last week. “There are people who get into their cars, pumped up with adrenaline, without thinking.”
For Pineda, a native of Honduras, the legal ordeal is part of an upended life, one centered on trying to move on after losing in an instant her only child, her husband and an older brother who had been a father figure growing up. She has leaned on her faith, leading weekly Bible studies and, three days a week, serving as an usher during services at the Camino a la Vida Eterna Pentecostal Church.
She smiles enough, jokes enough, that she can appear happy. And she’s around people a lot — working as a cook and living with relatives in a 900-square-foot home in Rockville, Md., she moved into after the crash.
But the grief is constant. She took a trunk with her in the move, and in there she keeps Salvador’s wallet and car keys and lotion he used. From Elizabeth: a pair of her shoes, one of her dresses and her favorite doll.
“When I think a lot about them, I open the trunk,” Pineda said in Spanish. “But I can’t do it all the time.”
Pineda can recite to the hour what she did with Elizabeth on Sunday, June 9, 2013, her daughter’s last day.
It started at 8 a.m., when the little girl woke her.
“Let’s play,” Elizabeth said.
They bathed together. They ate breakfast and played outdoors, where Elizabeth rode her bike. They ate lunch, watched a cartoon and got ready for the Sunday evening service at Camino a la Vida Eterna. Elizabeth begged to wear a pink birthday dress — one Pineda thought would be too warm for June — but she relented.
With her husband, Salvador, 39, at work — he was a chef at a Bethesda, Md., restaurant — the mother and daughter headed to church. “You look pretty today, Mom,” Elizabeth told her.
At the service, Elizabeth was especially affectionate, sitting close to her and touching her face.
“She was saying goodbye,” Pineda tells herself now.
Just before 10 p.m. on June 9, 2013, Shaka Wakefield, 25 at the time, and Audias Sanchez, then 36, each pulled in to a Citgo gas station along Georgia Avenue, in the Aspen Hill area, about five miles north of the Capital Beltway.
Wakefield had spent the day in training at the U.S. Army Reserve — specifically, a session on suicide prevention — then went out for a dinner of sushi and soda with a fellow soldier. She was headed home at the wheel of a 2008 Passat she’d bought four months earlier.
Sanchez, a married father of five who owns a small construction business, was driving a recently purchased red Camaro. His “dream car,” he called it.
Wakefield and Sanchez didn’t know each other, and there would be no evidence at their trial that they spoke at the gas station. The cars pulled out, eventually heading south on Georgia Avenue.
Wakefield’s exact speed could never be calculated, prosecutors would later acknowledge. But they said crash reconstruction analysis established she was going, at a minimum, 77 mph at impact. And more important to the case they presented: Wakefield was always ahead of Sanchez, who had a car equipped with black-box technology that recorded a speed of 106 mph seconds before impact.
It was dark when their racing cars crested a low rise and headed into a minor bend.
At that moment, a 2000 Nissan Sentra started to cross Georgia Avenue from a small side street — Kayson Street.
Pineda’s husband, Ramos, was behind the wheel, next to her. In the back seat was Elizabeth and Pineda’s brother, whom the family was driving to his nearby home.
In the legal battle to come, Wakefield and Sanchez would say they were not racing and cast blame on Ramos.
That day, he had drunk alcohol, and his autopsy showed a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.07 — just below the limit of driving under the influence in Maryland. The Passat driver, Wakefield, said that she was driving at or near the speed limit and that the Sentra darted in front of her. Sanchez didn’t testify, but his attorney said that because his car was the second to hit the Sentra, its occupants already had been ejected. But the courtroom battles were more than a year away.
From the back seat that night, Felipe Pineda had persuaded his sister — Elizabeth’s mom — to let the child watch a video on a cellphone. Elizabeth was fixed on the screen, watching her favorite Spanish-language show, “Delicioso,” a cooking program.
Elva Pineda came to on a hospital bed and looked up at two police officers, each with sad expressions.
She remembers hoping she was dreaming.
The officers asked for phone numbers of extended family. Someone else spoke out to say she needed surgery.
Pineda couldn’t move, and she told herself that once she got out of the operating room she would hear that Elizabeth was fine.
She awoke from the procedure to see relatives at the bedside. They couldn’t bring themselves to say what had happened.
A doctor leaned in.
“You were in a terrible accident,” he said. “I don’t know how you survived, but your family did not.”
She screamed and screamed again and then, in silence, wondered about her daughter: Wherever her body was, was she wrapped in blankets?
Pineda knew that as the lone survivor from the Sentra, she was a key witness for prosecutors. And she knew defense attorneys would attack her husband’s driving.
She’d met Ramos when she was 25, still in Colon, Honduras, where she was taking care of her aging parents. She was the 10th of 11 children, and Ramos was visiting from the United States, a friend of her older brothers.
They married in 2007, had Elizabeth two years later, and moved to Montgomery County. Pineda arrived to a snowstorm, three days of no power, missing her parents. But she stayed, and by 2013 had plans to enroll Elizabeth in preschool.
On Dec. 15, 2015, Pineda took the witness stand. She made a point of looking directly at Wakefield and Sanchez. “I wanted them to see my eyes, so they would feel my pain,” she recalled. But she said she quickly realized the pain they already felt. “They, too, were suffering.”
Through a court interpreter, prosecutor Amy Bills asked Pineda about the day of the crash. “I stayed with my little one,” Pineda said.
Defense attorney Leonard Addison questioned Pineda briefly, and asked her whether she had smelled alcohol on her husband. No, she said. Another defense attorney, Paolo Gnocchi, also questioned her.
“Miss Pineda, I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, his own voice cracking. “I have to ask you some questions.”
He keyed in on the Sentra’s crossing of Georgia Avenue.
“It would be very difficult for you to accept if Salvador had not made that stop on Kayson Street, wouldn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes, he did it,” Pineda said.
Prosecutors had more to their case: a witness who saw two cars zoom past going “neck and neck” before the crash; a witness at a nearby house who said he heard two engines revving and saw two speeding cars before hearing the crash; and accident reconstruction data that painted a picture of what happened.
“For racing, you don’t need a flag man in the middle of the street,” prosecutor Mark Anderson told jurors, saying Wakefield and Sanchez engaged in “an impromptu race down Georgia Avenue: ‘My car’s faster. No, mine is.’ ”
He said there was nothing to indicate Pineda’s husband did anything other than legally, and properly, try to cross the road to make a left turn. The Camaro and Passat came up so fast as they rounded the slight bend, the prosecutor said, that no driver could have reacted to get out of the way.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that 106 on a residential road is going to lead to the carnage,” Anderson said.
In the days ahead of Monday’s scheduled sentencing, Pineda struggled to write her “Victim Impact Statement,” which is part of the proceedings. Some drafts she had to crumple and toss. She turned it in Wednesday, two pages in Spanish in longhand.
“That day I lost what I loved the most: My family and my little one,” she wrote. “Sorrow walks with me every day.”
The next day, she went to a Bible study planning meeting at church, went to Friday services and went to the church’s main service Sunday evening.
“She’s an inspiration,” said Heriberto Interiano, a church staffer and active member. “Every time I see her, she seems happy.”
What happiness she has, Pineda said, she draws from precious memories that help relieve the crushing present. Among the best: brash and funny things Elizabeth said, including one chiding the girl gave her father when he made plans to take her mother to dinner, as a couple.
“We are three,” Elizabeth told him, “not two anymore.”