It sounds unlikely, almost impossible: A popular DJ runs off the road at one of the busiest intersections in North Carolinas largest city, an interchange monitored by camera, and vanishes for more than two months.
Family and friends quickly reported him missing. Police and volunteers searched the area, even checking the location of his last cellphone use. Roughly 100,000 people a day drove by the interchange of Interstates 485 and 77 in southwest Charlotte, while the wreckage of the one-car crash lay about 75 yards away.
But it wasnt until Monday, when another car wrecked nearby, that officials found the body they believe to be Max Espinoza, who apparently ran off the road early in the morning of May 6. If not for that coincidence, police say he might not have been found until autumn thinned the foliage that hid his overturned car.
Police were waiting Tuesday for formal identification of the body found in Espinozas white Volvo. But friends were grieving for a man who loved his two young daughters and Latin music, an immigrant from Ecuador who recently celebrated his U.S. citizenship.
He was just the most giving soul you will ever meet, said Erika Rodriguez, a salsa dancer and friend. He was passionate about his music and his daughters. We will miss him.
Espinoza, 36, was well-known among people who enjoyed Latin music and dancing. Rodriguez said he worked day jobs, including a recent stint installing granite countertops, then DJed at night.
According to police reports, Espinoza dropped his daughters at the home of his ex-wife the afternoon of Saturday, May 5, and went to a private party. He was last seen leaving the party, in the Ballantyne area of south Charlotte, around 1 a.m. May 6, and later texted two friends saying he was headed home.
Espinoza lived on Autumn Oak Drive in north Charlotte, not far from the Harris Boulevard exit on I-77. There was no rain and good visibility May 5 and 6, according to The Old Farmers Almanac website, which archives government weather data.
Into the woods
Police now believe he was driving west on inner I-485 when he reached the point where the ramps for north and south I-77 form a V. Instead of getting onto one of those ramps, he continued straight, driving through a grassy area, down a slope and into woods, where his car landed upside down 15 to 20 feet below road level, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Robert Fey. There was no guardrail and no brush or trees to show damage where his car left the road, Fey said Tuesday.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has a camera at that interchange, but there is no archived video from that night, said communications officer Jen Thompson. DOT staff monitor road cameras 24 hours a day, but there was no call to direct their attention to that location at that time, she said.
His ex-wife, Jessica Espinoza, filed a missing person report May 8, saying he hadnt returned home and hadnt been in contact. Jessica Espinoza couldnt be reached Tuesday. Rodriguez said Jessica Espinoza got worried when her ex-husband didnt return for a scheduled visit with his daughters.
On May 11, the CMPD put out a public request for information about Espinozas disappearance. Meanwhile, friends exchanged calls and created a Facebook page, seeking information and rallying volunteers for a search.
Rodriguez said police got a warrant to check the location of his last phone call, which was tracked to a tower at West Providence and Community House Road in south Charlotte the night he disappeared. She said they also determined there had been no activity in his bank account since then.
On May 18, she said, volunteers and police searched the area near the I-485/77 interchange, on foot and with a helicopter. They looked to the right and left of the I-77 fork, but didnt check the woods between the two ramps, Rodriguez said.
Fey confirmed the search, although he wasnt sure whether a helicopter was used. Even with an aerial view, the wreckage would have been tough to see, he said.
Its not that we just put this on the back burner. A lot of attention was given, he said. The only way you would have seen this car was by helicopter and looking straight down.
On Monday morning, 10 weeks after Espinozas disappearance, a motorist clipped a guardrail near the same interchange. As officials gathered to work that wreck, a firefighter glimpsed the wrecked Volvo lying upside down in the woods.
Thompson said the DOT used its camera to monitor traffic at Mondays scene, but the wrecked Volvo was not visible until it was pulled out.
The medical examiner is working to make a positive identification of the body, which is likely to take some time, Fey said.
The police departments major crash investigation unit is trying to reconstruct what happened that night.