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Soon-to-be groom and friend die fixing tire

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

When they ran off to Las Vegas, Nev., to be married on Tuesday, Benigna Martinez and Lonnie Escovedo didn’t tell anyone.

“We didn’t want no family to stop us, nobody to tell us that we can and can’t get married,” Martinez told the Journal on Thursday. “It was spur of the moment.”

Escovedo died before the couple got out of New Mexico, along with his sister’s boyfriend, Michael Chambellan.

On their way from Mora, the soon-to-be newlyweds got a flat tire on Interstate 25 outside Algodones, and Escovedo called his sister Dawn, who came to help, along with Chambellan.

Martinez said it was starting to get dark as the men changed the tire on the shoulder of the freeway. So she was reaching into the back seat for a flashlight when deputies say 31-year-old Christie Noriega hit the car, striking 21-year-old Chambellan and 28-year-old Escovedo.

Christie Noriega, 31 (KOAT)

Both men were killed instantly.

Noriega, of Rio Rancho, was booked into the Sandoval County Detention Center later that night on two counts of DWI-related homicide by vehicle.

She was also charged with her second DWI offense and child abuse after deputies discovered her 2-year-old was in the back seat during the crash.

At least two people had called Sandoval County dispatch around 6 p.m. Tuesday evening to report a drunken driver traveling south on I-25.

Minutes later, that same car “flew by” Cynthia Maestas and Kirk Hackler as the couple drove home from skiing at Sipapu.

“She was going way fast,” Maestas said. “Little by little, she started drifting into that lane – we thought she’d pull away.”

The couple watched as Noriega swiped the side of the car at “80-plus” before her car spun around as car parts flew everywhere.

Maestas called police as Hackler got out of the car to check on everyone, trying to keep the women from approaching the bodies of their loved ones.

“They didn’t need to see that,” he said. “That’s not the vision they want in their heads, the last memory of them.”

Afterward, Hackler checked on Noriega, who told him she wasn’t injured and asked him for help so she wouldn’t “get hit again.”

“She wanted me to help her start her car,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell her what she’d just done – she was very nonchalant about what had happened.”

While speaking to Noriega after the crash, Sandoval County deputies say, they noticed a “strong odor” of alcohol, slurred speech and “bloodshot, watery” eyes.

Noriega told deputies she had not drunk any alcohol and did not remember the crash.

Deputies say they saw an open “miniature of 99 pineapple liquor” on the ground beside Noriega’s vehicle.

Retired Sandia wrestling coach AJ Pacheco said he was eating dinner when he got a call from Chambellan’s mother.

“She told me that Mikey passed away – I didn’t believe her,” Pacheco said. “She said, ‘I am not joking, AJ’ – the sincerity in her voice, I knew that we lost Mikey.”

Pacheco said he immediately packed his truck full of blankets and scooped up wrestling coaches along the way to meet Chambellan’s mom at the scene of the crash.

“It’s senseless,” Pacheco said, calling drunken driving 100 percent preventable.

“They took away Mikey – and that’s something that drives me up the wall.”

Pacheco, who coached Chambellan for four years on the Sandia High School wrestling team, said he was “proud” to learn Chambellan was out there to help Escovedo change a tire.

“That’s what he was doing – helping other people – unfortunately, it cost him his life,” he said. “There will never be another Mikey Chambellan.”

Pacheco called him a role model who was always quick to make people laugh and lighten up any situation.

“Mikey was rare. He set the example; he was the standard,” Pacheco said.

Martinez, Escovedo’s fiancee, called both men very respectful and said she hopes Noriega is prosecuted to the fullest.

“They didn’t deserve what happened to them, at all,” she said. “That’s how I feel – I ain’t going to beat around the bush.”

Escovedo was her “little class clown” who loved to dance, the 36-year-old said. “As soon as you get him to start dancing, you could not get him to stop – he made me feel young again.”

Martinez said she and Escovedo are both from Mora and had been together a year and a half – five months ago, he gave her a ring.

She says she will probably never take it off, just like she will never forget Escovedo’s smile, his happiness and the last words they shared as the sun set on the side of I-25.

“How we loved each other and couldn’t wait to get out of the state to be Mr. and Mrs. Escovedo,” she said. “To me, I think it’s a dream and I’ll wake up and he’ll be there – but I know he’ll never be here ever again.”

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