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How SHSU police mishandled crash victim identification

Associate Editor

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 23:01

crash

Khoi Nguyen | The Houstonian

Three crosses are placed for three students who died in an accident on graduation day last semester. The memorials have since been removed.

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Hours after a fatal car wreck involving four Sam Houston State students on campus in December, SHSU’s police department incorrectly identified one of the deceased students in the midst of the tragedy.

SHSU officials are admitting fault to misidentifying Roberto Rodriguez Guerra as one of the three students who died in the accident. After eight hours of confusion about the identity of the victims, the university released the names of those who were killed, but SHSU student Guerra, 21, whose name was included in the press release, was alive and well.

According to University Police Chief Kevin Morris, UPD misidentified Guerra as the third victim.

“We made a mistake,” Morris said.

Morris said a piece of stolen property belonging to Guerra contributed to the confusion.

“We use several different characteristics, you know, could be driver’s licenses, ID’s, whatever may be in the individual’s pockets,” Morris said. “Going on what one of the individuals had in his pockets, it appeared that his name was who we identified him as. As we went through that process, we felt fairly confident of it. When the two investigators were going through it, they felt confident, and so we released the names to our public relations who then released them to the media.”

That stolen property was an iPod found on the victim’s person, according to Guerra, a junior political science major. He said he kept on it a copy of his class schedule and Sam ID.

“They got my name from the iPod,” Guerra said, including that he thought an iPod doesn’t come close to an official ID.

Communications director Julia May was in charge of making the victims’ names public.

“We were given the names, and whenever we had our statement prepared, then we released the names,” May said. “Almost immediately we were contacted by UPD that there was a possibility that the third name we released was inaccurate.”

The media received a second press released redacting Guerra’s name with a third release later revealed that Alfanso Mata, 20, was the third victim.

Guerra said his parents were notified of his alleged death and accepted their son’s fate at face value.

“That was the main inconvenience for me, that my parents were notified about it,” Guerra said.

Guerra’s parents didn’t attempt to contact him because of their confidence in the police’s word, according to Guerra. After he was incorrectly reported dead, he said his phone was flooded with texts and calls from concerned friends.

“I just didn’t know what to believe,” Guerra said. “The first thing I did, I went for my wallet and looked for my IDs. I looked through my phone, everything. My first reaction was to assume everybody was alive, because I knew I was alive and I had all my IDs. All of them.”

Minutes after the initial press release by the university, The Houstonian posted the names on Facebook and Twitter. Multiple commenters immediately refuted the reports that Guerra had died.

One commenter, Ricardo Rodriguez, suggested checking sources again, because he was certain it was a mistake.

“Roberto Rodriguez was not in the car at the time,” Rodriguez posted. “It’s somebody else.”

“He is our friend, and he is well and alive,” Cristina Isabel said. “It put his family and friends through grave stress.”

UPD is currently reevaluating their process by which victims are identified in situations such as this, according to Morris.

An investigation into the fatal car crash is still ongoing by UPD. The Houstonian will continue to cover the investigation as more information unfolds.

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