Coroner: WY crash that killed 5 was murder-suicide

November 18, 2011 - 5:05 AM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The Wyoming family was driving to a doctor's appointment when a distraught teenager saw his chance in their headlights, authorities say. Matthew Denton throttled his SUV to 97 mph, steered into the opposite lanes, and kept his foot off the brake.

The head-on crash just after midnight Nov. 10 killed five people including 17-year-old Denton and four in a Dodge Caravan minivan: 41-year-old Corina Surrell-Norman; her ex-husband, Arvin Surrell; their 25-year-old son, Ethan Surrell; and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Melinda Escamilla.

Thursday's announcement by the Wyoming Highway Patrol that the fiery wreck was a murder-suicide came a day after burial for the four in a tribal cemetery.

The Surrells were from Fort Washakie, population 1,700, on the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation. Escamilla was from Riverton, a town of about 11,000 surrounded by reservation lands. The Surrells were Eastern Shoshone and Escamilla was Northern Arapaho, the two tribes that share the reservation that covers about a third of Fremont County.

"As a community we're still absorbing the losses and supporting the families," said Ivan Posey, a top Eastern Shoshone official who is a member of the tribal Business Council. "It's a family issue and the community is here to support them."

At least one person who knew Denton doubted it was suicide. The official findings drawn in part from a data recording device in the Suburban were unambiguous, however.

Denton's nearly 100 mph speed in the Chevrolet Suburban, his absence of braking and the lack of skid marks on the pavement all pointed to suicide, said Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Adams.

"It was dark. He picked the next vehicle that was coming down the road, is what it looked like to us," Adams said.

He also said Denton sent text messages involving "personal problems" in the hour before the crash. Denton died later in the day at a hospital in Casper.

Adams declined to release the texts or discuss the personal problems Denton was facing. He said Denton was not texting at the moment of impact.

The minivan was going between 50 and 55 mph when the crash happened four miles south of Lander, a town of about 7,400 at the foot of the Wind River Range. Adams said the four were headed to Salt Lake City for a doctor's appointment.

Posey said the doctor's appointment was for Arvin Surrell, a former tribal construction company employee.

"Quiet, hard-worker, friendly," Posey said of Surrell. "I just know him from the standpoint of being a good worker and being in the community."

Denton was a senior at Lander Valley High School. The school's band director expressed skepticism he deliberately caused the wreck, describing Denton as a well-liked, top student who played the saxophone.

"He could have been upset, could have been crying," said Tyler Surrell, no relation to the crash victims. "And by the time he looked up, it could have been too late."

Lisa Hafer, principal at Lander Valley High School where Denton was a student, declined to comment.

The crash happened on a stretch of Wyoming Highway 789 that had two southbound lanes and a northbound lane. Denton was headed north when he crossed into both southbound lanes.

The collision occurred in the inner southbound lane. The van tumbled off the highway and caught fire. Two people were ejected from the van and the other two burned inside.

Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan said the collision killed all four in the van instantly.

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Associated Press writers Ben Neary and Bob Moen contributed to this report