Charges were filed Tuesday against a Pasco man who police say was driving at speeds over 60 mph before his pickup “torpedoed” into a car, killing a Kennewick father.
Miguel A. Paniagua, 23, is wanted on four felonies relating to the April 2 hit-and-run crash on Sylvester Street.
A convicted felon and documented gang member, he allegedly resembles the man captured on nearby surveillance video running from the abandoned truck. A loaded gun was found inside that truck, which Facebook postings show Paniagua had recently purchased, according to court documents.
It was the truck’s missing front bumper that first caught the attention of Pasco police that evening and, as Paniagua realized they were trying to stop him for the traffic infraction, he sped away to avoid going to jail on six outstanding warrants, documents said.
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Now, police and Franklin County prosecutors have new reason to see Paniagua locked up. He is charged with vehicular homicide, attempting to elude police, first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm and failure to stop and identify at the scene of an injury accident.
Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell signed the arrest warrant, which set a $500,000 bail amount for Paniagua once he is in custody.
Detectives are said to be working on multiple leads, but Paniagua was still on the lam as of Tuesday evening.
Officer Jeffrey Cobb was on patrol at 4:59 p.m. April 2 when he noticed a 2004 Chevy C/K 1500 without a front bumper. He started to follow the truck on North Fourth Avenue and at that point saw the Chevy turn west onto Sylvester without using a turn signal, court documents said. The truck also turned into the wrong lane, so Cobb activated his overhead emergency lights to stop the Chevy for three traffic infractions, documents said.
However, the truck’s driver allegedly stepped on the gas and took off, which Cobb believed was a premeditated move.
Cobb informed dispatchers that the Chevy was failing to yield and traveling over 60 mph because his patrol car was going that fast and could not keep up, while the distance continued to increase between the two vehicles, court documents said. The pursuit was nearing 20th Avenue where officers had noted traffic was moderately high, so Sgt. William Parramore called off the chase because “the public’s safety outweighed Paniagua’s apprehension,” documents said.
Cobb reportedly turned off his lights and watched as the Chevy continued west on Sylvester, “kicking up dirt and debris, leaving behind a trail of dust.” He then lost sight of the truck after it went over the Highway 395 overpass.
Dispatchers started getting 911 calls a short time later about a two-vehicle collision at Sylvester and Road 36. The Chevy had broadsided a 1999 Honda Accord, sending both vehicles off the road next to a front yard.
Jason Edward Smith, 36, was behind the wheel of the Honda when it was hit.
Detective Tony Aceves said the force of the crash was such that the Honda’s passenger door was pushed into the center of the car. The Chevy had significant front end damage and it was discovered the frame was broken.
Smith was believed to be turning north onto Road 36 when the pickup slammed into his car. Family has said he was driving to the post office to pick up his business mail.
Smith was rushed to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. He died at 7:09 p.m. from massive internal injuries.
Meanwhile, a nearby resident notified police he had security cameras around his home and that he had footage of the wreck and of the driver fleeing the scene, court documents said.
Investigators then learned about a woman who had posted a Facebook message with a picture of a white truck that appeared to be identical to the suspect vehicle. The woman also wrote that Paniagua had the picture on his own Facebook account — which is open to the public — and had said he recently bought the Chevy, documents said.
Detectives confirmed the truck belonged to Paniagua by looking at his account, then compared pictures of him to the suspect seen running in the surveillance video and allegedly found a resemblance. They got a search warrant for the truck and located a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber revolver on the driver’s floorboard, along with a cellphone, court documents said.
The ignition key had been used on the truck, which told investigators it had not been stolen.
A subsequent search of the cellphone revealed text messages in which the sender had identified himself as “Miguel” or with Paniagua’s known gang moniker, documents said.
The crash happened in front of the Pasco Riverview Seventh-day Adventist Church and some members know the Smith family.
The church has decided to hold a prayer vigil from 6 to 8 p.m. April 9 at 605 N. Road 36. The community is invited “to come and uplift the Smith family in prayer for this tragic loss for their family,” an organizer told the Herald on Tuesday.
Smith’s memorial service is at 1 p.m. April 10 at Kennewick’s South Hills Church, 3700 W. 27th Ave.
Anyone with information on last Thursday’s collision or Paniagua’s location is asked to contact Pasco police at 509-545-3421 or Crime Stoppers at 509-586-TIPS. All tips are anonymous.
Crime Stoppers pays a cash reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest in any felony crime.
Tips also can be texted to “Text TIP 411” plus your message to CRIMES (274637).