Turnpike Crash Kills Honduran Diplomat

By Paul Peirce
Friday, February 9, 2007

An illegal immigrant from Ghana was driving a tractor-trailer that rear-ended a car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Westmoreland County on Thursday, killing a Honduran diplomat.
Trade specialist Nuria Ortiz Navarro, 31, a passenger in the back seat of a 1996 Volkswagen Jetta driven by her brother-in-law, was pronounced dead at the scene by Deputy Coroner F. Christopher O'Leath, according to state police in New Stanton.

The truck driver, Sam P. Thompson, 32, of Gaithersburg, Md., an employee of Transcare Systems Inc., of Bowie, Md., was arraigned on multiple criminal charges, including homicide by vehicle, following vehicles too closely, driving at an unsafe speed, careless driving, speeding and reckless driving.

He appeared before Hempfield District Judge Mark Mansour and was jailed on $100,000 bond.

State police Trooper Richard Mahokey said Thompson is an illegal immigrant from Ghana who had been facing deportation. Mahokey said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked yesterday that Thompson be detained by police.

Other passengers in the car were Ortiz Navarro's husband, Pablo Octavio Miranda Nigro, 33, a Washington attorney; Julio Anibal Miranda Lillo, 63, a Chilean judge and Ortiz Navarro's father-in-law; and Julio Miranda Nigro, 35, also of Chile, who was driving the car, police said.

Police said the Nigros and Lillo were taken to Mercy Hospital, Uptown, for treatment of minor injuries.

Thompson, who was hauling glassware, submitted to a blood-alcohol test at Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, police said. Results of that test are not yet known.

As he was led from the arraignment, Thompson shielded his face from reporters by pulling his jacket over his head.

During the brief court session before Mansour, Thompson denied responsibility for the crash.

"I didn't cause this," he said. "I wasn't following too closely. That car passed me. ... I'm in my lane."

Thompson told Mansour that he has been in the United States since 1998 and has lived in Maryland for the past 2 1/2 years.

Thompson denied officials' claims that he is an illegal immigrant and said he has valid work permits.

Mansour scheduled Thompson's preliminary hearing for Feb. 16.

O'Leath said Ortiz Navarro's family told investigators that the group was returning to Washington from Chicago.

"The U.S. State Department told us that they were on diplomatic business," O'Leath said.

The victim's father-in-law, Julio Lillo, was vacationing in the United States with his oldest son, said Miranda Lillo's brother, Sergio Clark Lillo, of Santiago, Chile.

"What a devastating tragedy," Clark Lillo said from his home in Chile.

Clark Lillo said his brother has been in the United States for about a week and was expected to return home in about two weeks.

He said his nephew, Pablo Miranda Nigro, and Ortiz Navarro had been married about two years and had no children.

State police said the crash occurred at 5:52 a.m. in the eastbound lanes, about four miles west of the New Stanton interchange, in Arona.

Mahokey said state police accident reconstructionists are working to determine how fast Thompson was driving when the wreck occurred.

Authorities did not know the victim was a diplomat until they noticed the diplomat license plate on the car.

"It's really unbelievable anyone survived in that car," said Irwin fire Chief Keith Gray.

"It was bad. She was in the rear seat, with her seat belt still on, and the force of the collision had forced the trunk and the back of the rear seat up over top, so we had to cut through that to pull her out," he said.

The Honduran embassy in Washington confirmed that Ortiz Navarro was a commercial attache working in the U.S. to promote the economic interests of her country.

Ortiz Navarro was the daughter of Mayra Navarro, a well-known television journalist in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

She had lived in the United States for about six years when she took a job at the Honduran Embassy in Washington, said Tirza Ulloa, Mayra Navarro's assistant at Maya TV, Channel 66.

"She was a very giving, very lovable person," Ulloa said in Spanish. "She was dedicated to her family and was very close to her sister.

"She liked to study and was very educated. She had fulfilled all her goals. She was very happy."

Ortiz Navarro is survived by her mother, who in addition to her work in Honduran TV works as an international correspondent for CNN and Univision; and a sister.

Ulloa said plans are being made to fly Navarro's body to Honduras over the weekend.

Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement could not be reached last night for comment on Thompson's pending deportation order.

Thompson carried a valid Maryland driver's license as well as a commercial driver's license, according to state records.

Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said that based on a state Attorney General's opinion issued a few years ago, transportation officials don't ask whether a person applying for a license is in the United States legally.

Someone applying for a Maryland driver's license must show proof of identity, age and state residency, Young said.

A representative of Transcare Systems did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Staff writers Luis Fabregas, Bob Stiles and Liz Zemba contributed to this report.

Paul Peirce can be reached at ppeirce@tribweb.com or (724) 850-2860.