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Trial testimony: Survivors detail deadly van crash in DeKalb, Texas, that killed two children

by Lynn LaRowe | January 19, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.

NEW BOSTON, Texas -- A survivor of a crash that took the lives of two young boys last year testified Wednesday in the capital murder trial of the Texarkana man accused of intentionally causing the wreck.

Zachary Blaise Salazar, 22, faces life without the possibility of parole if found guilty of capital murder in the Jan. 13, 2021, deaths of James Crowley, 3, and Riley Burgess, 7. Joann Ranier, mother of the boys' stepfather, was riding in the passenger seat of the minivan that was struck head-on by a red Ford Ranger pickup being driven by Salazar along U.S. Highway 82 in DeKalb, Texas, shortly before 10 p.m. the night of the deadly crash.

Joann Ranier was tearful throughout her testimony. Under questioning by First Assistant District Attorney Kelley Crisp, Joann Ranier testified that her son, James Ranier, was driving the minivan, she rode in the front passenger seat, and her daughter-in-law, Ashly Ranier, rode in the second row.

The 3-year-old Joann Ranier called "little James" was strapped into a car seat directly behind the driver's seat and his older brother, Riley, was strapped into a car seat directly behind him. Ashly Ranier, the children's mother, rode in the second row and two girls, one an infant and the other age 5, were strapped into car seats in the second and third rows.

Joann Ranier testified that her son asked her to accompany the family to the grocery store because shopping was difficult with so many youngsters in tow. Joann Ranier said Riley cajoled his father into stopping for chicken nuggets after the grocery trip and was asking about the meaning of a Bible verse he was learning for church.

Joann Ranier said that as the family sat in a parking lot so she could "fix" the chicken nuggets for the older children, James Ranier turned to little James and Riley and said, "Love you boys."

Joann Ranier said the family was on the portion of Highway 82 in DeKalb known as Front Street when "this man came through the light, he was just coming faster."

"I think he flashed his lights. James said, 'Help us Jesus,'" Joann Ranier testified. "I felt like he was trying to kill us because of the way he done it."

Joann Ranier said that when she "woke up" she realized a tragedy was unfolding. Joann Ranier said she couldn't find a pulse on either boy, her son was pinned in the driver's seat and she was unable to get a call to 911 to go through.

Joann Ranier said Ashly Ranier was pregnant at the time of the crash but later miscarried.

DeKalb resident Jason Reynolds testified under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Lauren Richards that he saw the pickup "drifting over" as he pulled into Sonic.

"They hit like driver to driver," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the truck was speeding and crossing lanes as he turned into the parking lot. Reynolds described hearing a boom as the truck and minivan collided.

"When I ran up on the van, I ran up on the driver's side, and that's where it looked like somebody had taken a can opener and peeled the whole side of the van back," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the boys were "hanging in their car seats, like in a tree" and described the scene as eerie.

Officer Jonathan Matlock, who currently works for Texarkana Independent School District police, was working as a deputy for Bowie County Sheriff's Office the night of the crash. Matlock said that firefighters and law enforcement officers who are also parents were struggling with the "catastrophic" scene.

Dallas Medical Examiner Stephen Hastings, M.D., testified that James Crowley's skull was crushed and his spinal cord was severed, causing near instantaneous death. Hastings chronicled a long list of other injuries suffered by the boy and said he determined the death was a homicide based on information he received from law enforcement.

Under cross-examination by Texarkana defense lawyer Jeff Harrelson, Hastings agreed that if the driver of the truck had been impaired by a medical condition or if there were mechanical issues with the truck, his finding of homicide might change.

Nathan Head, who currently works for the Office of the Inspector General of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, testified he was working as a trooper for the Texas Department of Public Safety the night of the crash. Head said he and others with specialized training in major crash investigations were processing the scene when he was informed that Salazar's former girlfriend, Anola Jordan, and her mother, Virginia Leal, wanted to speak with investigators.

"They were emphatic this was an intentional act," Head testified.

Jordan testified that she had been dating Salazar for a few months when she learned early in January 2021 that she was pregnant with his child. Jordan said she and Salazar were communicating via Facebook messenger, as they routinely did, and that their digital conversation turned to future living arrangements.

Jordan said Salazar was unwavering in his desire for them to live near his job at Classic Car Wash in Texarkana but she wanted to stay closer to her mom, who lives in DeKalb. Shortly before 9 p.m., Jordan received a message from Salazar which was among many shown to the jury Wednesday.

"If this night gets any (expletive) worse than it already (expletive) is, I'm probably going to wind up killing myself or someone else, one of the (expletive) two," Salazar's message read.

Jordan said the messages from Salazar disturbed her so much that she told him their relationship was over. Salazar responded by telling Jordan to "just block me," which she did, ending their electronic communication.

Jordan said she was watching a movie with her mother when Salazar knocked on the front door at approximately 9:50 p.m. the night of the crash. Jordan testified that Salazar was "verbally aggressive" and cursing when her mother told him to leave.

"He started to walk away, he mumbled something and then very clearly he said, 'F--- it. I'll just go wreck,'" Jordan said.

A message Jordan sent to her father at 9:56 p.m. was shown to the jury, "Mom made him leave. He walked off threatening to wreck."

Moments later, she and her mother heard the sound of sirens and traveled to the scene of the crash.

The last witness to testify Wednesday was Zachary Salazar's mother, Teresa Salazar. Under questioning by Crisp, Teresa Salazar described a public post by her son on Facebook threatening suicide and homicide on the day of the crash as a "tongue in cheek" comment.

"He vented on his Facebook page like many children do," Teresa Salazar testified.

Crisp asked Teresa Salazar if she is aware of Zachary Salazar's account on another social media site, Instagram. Crisp read and showed the jury a post from Zachary Salazar dated Oct. 23, 2020, in which he stated he has almost intentionally gotten into multiple wrecks by driving over 80 miles per hour while thinking about crossing into oncoming traffic.

Crisp confronted Teresa Salazar with recordings of jailhouse phone conversations between her and her son.

"Have you said this is some hyped up drama bullshit," Crisp asked.

Teresa Salazar said she doesn't know if that's exactly what she said but ," Yes there is a lot of drama. Yes there is a lot of bullshit."

Crisp questioned Teresa Salazar about blaming Jordan for the criminal charges facing Zachary Salazar and a jail conversation during which she and her son spoke of the Raniers traveling with too many people in their minivan.

Teresa Salazar testified under questioning from Harrelson that Zachary Salazar "would never do that to his truck and he would never involve somebody else like that."

The jury was placed in an evening recess shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday by 202nd District Judge John Tidwell with instructions to return to court Thursday morning. The trial is expected to continue through Friday.

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