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Experts recreated accident scene in capital murder trial of Texarkana man accused in crash deaths of two young boys

Testimony: Truck speed before impact exceeded 80 mph; No evidence of braking, skid marks by Lynn LaRowe | January 20, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.

NEW BOSTON, Texas -- The state rested its case Thursday afternoon in the capital murder trial of a Texarkana man accused of intentionally crashing his truck into a minivan last year, killing two young boys.

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. The boys' stepfather, James Rainier, and mother, Ashly Ranier, testified Thursday.

James Ranier said that the family was on their way home from grocery shopping the night of the crash. James Ranier's mother, Joann Ranier, was riding in the passenger seat. Little James, as the family called him, was strapped into a car seat directly behind the driver's seat and Riley was strapped into a car seat in the third row directly behind his brother.

The couple's infant daughter was strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the middle row next to her mother and their 5-year-old daughter was buckled into a car seat in the third row on the passenger side. As the family traveled westbound down a stretch of U.S. Highway 82, known as Front Street, in DeKalb, Texas, they talked about a Bible verse Riley was learning for church, James Ranier testified under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Lauren Richards.

"The speed limit goes from 45 to 30 as you near the stop light," James Ranier said. "I saw headlights come through the red light and I started slowing down like I normally do."

James Ranier said he thought for a moment that the headlights which appeared to be coming toward the van were turning into Sonic as he began moving the minivan toward the shoulder and applying his brakes. James Ranier said the truck coming at him seemed to be traveling "exceptionally fast" before it struck the van's front end and headlights appeared to go over him.

James Ranier said that when he regained consciousness his head was wedged between pieces of twisted metal and his legs were pinned. He required surgery to repair his broken leg though jaw fractures were allowed to heal on their own. James Ranier said his 5-year-old stepdaughter suffered a broken leg and also required surgery.

"(The 5-year-old) saw what happened to her brothers. In fact, we're still dealing with that," James Ranier said. "She always tells me not to get in a wreck every time she gets in the car."

The trauma continues to haunt the 5-year-old, James Ranier said, noting that he recently had to pick her up early from school. James Ranier said he and his wife were expecting a child at the time of the crash but learned in the week after the wreck that she lost the baby.

Ashly Ranier testified under questioning by First Assistant District Attorney Kelley Crisp that she was about nine weeks pregnant at the time of the crash.

"I wasn't feeling good that night. I was eating grapes and at about the third grape, there was a light blinding us," Ashly Ranier said.

Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers Jonathan Baldwin and Jason Rolison testified as crash reconstruction experts Thursday.

Baldwin said it is unusual to find that all children in a vehicle are properly buckled, particularly when there are many of them.

"All of the children were properly restrained in their car seats," Baldwin testified.

Using video from nearby businesses, Baldwin pointed out Salazar driving his red Ford Ranger pickup and stopping at a light at the intersection of Knapp Street and Highway 82 moments before the crash. Baldwin said the truck appeared to be working fine.

Witnesses testified Tuesday and Wednesday that Salazar had just left a house on Knapp where he'd argued with a former girlfriend who had just broken up with him. Anola Jordan and her mother, Virginia Leal, testified that as he walked away, Salazar said, "F--- it. I'll go wreck."

Baldwin testified that he recovered the ACM -- airbag control module -- from the Ranier's minivan but that the module from Salazar's truck was destroyed by fire following the collision. Baldwin said the data from the Ranier's minivan showed it was traveling at 41 miles per hour five seconds before the air bag deployed and 31 miles per hour one second before the air bag deployed, indicating that James Ranier was applying his brakes.

Using plastic model cars, Baldwin demonstrated the impact for the jury. Baldwin said the pickup struck the right side of the van, "making penetration into the driver's side area, missing James Ranier," but striking little James, who was pushed back into his brother.

Both boys suffered catastrophic head and spinal injuries and were pronounced dead at the scene. Dallas Medical Examiners Stephen Hastings M.D. and Janice Townsend-Parchman M.D. testified Wednesday and Thursday about the severity of the blunt force and other injuries suffered by little James and Riley.

Rolison, who teaches crash reconstruction techniques at DPS, said he has "never seen one quite like this before," when asked about the crash.

"The truck was able to stop the bigger vehicle and redirect it. The only way you could do that is to have a tremendous amount of speed."

Rolison demonstrated the math involved when he calculated the speed of the pickup, estimating that when it hit the minivan it was traveling between approximately 80 and 89 miles per hour. Baldwin and Rolison both testified that crash investigators were unable to find any evidence that Salazar attempted to brake or take evasive maneuvers before driving through the minivan.

Under cross-examination by Texarkana defense lawyer Jeff Harrelson, Rolison said it is possible the truck could have been "braking" but there was no skid mark evidence to indicate it had.

As the lead detective, Bowie County Sheriff's Office Capt. David Biggar, testified Thursday morning, the jury heard a recording of a jail phone call between Salazar and his father that was taped Wednesday evening following the second day of testimony.

"I will say this, who the (expletive) is she to judge me. She's talking about my morals when she's putting up those gruesome pictures," Salazar said on the recording, referring to Crisp. "I would be (expletive) lying to you if I said this b---- wasn't getting under my skin. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to slap her."

Other jailhouse recordings were played during which Salazar blames his criminal charges on his former girlfriend for informing investigators of his alleged threat to "go wreck" shortly before the crash. Biggar testified that he acquired search warrants for Salazar's social media accounts, including Instagram.

A message allegedly sent Oct. 23, 2020, by Salazar via Instagram was shown to the jury as Biggar testified.

"I've almost intentionally gotten into multiple wrecks. I can't tell you how many times I've been going 80-plus and damn near went into the opposing lane just to get this shit done and over with and die," the post stated.

After the state rested its case Thursday afternoon, 202nd District Judge John Tidwell placed the jury in an evening recess with instructions to return to the Bowie County courthouse Friday morning.

"Hopefully we'll have this case to you before noon," Tidwell told the jury.

Harrelson is expected to call witnesses for the defense Friday. Once both sides have closed, the jury will hear instructions from Tidwell about the law they must follow and closing arguments before they begin their deliberations.

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