Double fatality with train

Members of the Amtrak train crew, county sheriff’s department and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad maintenance people confer at the private crossing where an Amtrak train struck a car and killed the two occupants. The train, now parked at the crossing, was moving at high speed and carried the car more than half a mile as it tried to stop.

The Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office has ruled that the deaths of two people in a train/vehicle collision north of Kelso Friday were accidental.

Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davison said a video Amtrak released Wednesday morning shows the driver, 29-year-old Gildardo Cruz Vera Strickler of Kelso, failing to stop at a train crossing at a private intersection on the 500 block of Pleasant Hill Road in Castle Rock.

Vera Strickler was driving with Sonya Sussanna Wallace, 32, of Longview in the passenger seat.

The vehicle was eastbound, approaching the crossing from Horseshoe Bend toward Pleasant Hill Road. Both occupants turned their heads when the Amtrak conductor sounded the locomotive horn, according to eyewitnesses.

The video shows Vera Strickler attempting to accelerate out of the way, Davidson said. Vera Strickler died from blunt force head injuries and Wallace died from multiple blunt force bodily injuries, the coroner’s office said Saturday. It’s still not clear how fast the train was going when it struck the vehicle, but an Amtrak spokesman said Wednesday that the maximum speed on that stretch of track is 70 miles per hour.

Davidson said he took extra time to determine the manner of death – whether the deaths were due on an accident, suicide, natural causes or homicide – “because there are rumors and stuff from extended family members about possible wrongdoing.

“With that in mind, I wanted to make sure all the evidence was presented before I made a final decision.” That was why he wanted to review Amtrak video of the incident, he said.

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Vera Strickler and Wallace applied for a marriage license this summer, and Davidson said he heard reports that they married while Vera Strickler was serving time in the Cowlitz County Jail.

Vera Strickler recently finished serving 60 days in Cowlitz County Jail for one count of felony criminal impersonation and one count of escape from community custody. He faced 12 different felony charges in Cowlitz County Superior Court dating back to 2006, including second-degree arson and six felony drug violations. He pleaded guilty to most of the charges; a handful of others were dismissed.

Wallace, a former Jack-in-the Box employee, was studying to become a certified home caregiver, said Butch Ellis, a family friend whose mother was close with her.

Wallace had completed her coursework and was waiting to take a test to receive her credential, he said.

She leaves behind an infant child who will be cared for by a distant cousin, Ellis said.

“She went way before her time,” he said.

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