Coroner: WY crash that killed 5 was murder-suicide

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Posted: Nov 17, 2011 7:20 PM
Coroner: WY crash that killed 5 was murder-suicide

A fiery, head-on crash that killed five people in central Wyoming last week was a murder-suicide by a distraught teen who veered his SUV into a family in a minivan at nearly 100 mph on a dark highway, authorities said Thursday.

The crash happened just after midnight Nov. 10 four miles south of Lander, a town of about 7,400 at the foot of the Wind River Range. Seventeen-year-old Matthew Denton deliberately turned the 2002 Chevrolet Suburban he was driving into oncoming traffic, Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan said.

The Suburban was going 97 mph when it crashed head-on into a 2005 Dodge Caravan, instantly killing all four people in the minivan. Denton, who was alone in the Suburban, died at a Casper hospital shortly after the wreck.

The van was going between 50 and 55 mph. There was no evidence Denton was targeting anyone inside the van, officials said.

"I don't think he had a clue who he was running into. It was dark. He picked the next vehicle that was coming down the road, is what it looked like to us," Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Adams said.

Killed in the minivan were 41-year-old Corina Surrell-Norman; her ex-husband, Arvin Surrell; their 25-year-old son, Ethan Surrell, who was driving the minivan; and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Melinda Escamilla. All lived within about 30 miles of the crash: Denton was from Lander, the Surrells lived in Fort Washakie, and Escamilla was from Riverton.

The Surrells and Escamilla were headed to Salt Lake City for a doctor's appointment, Adams said.

Authorities determined the crash was intentional after inspecting a vehicle data recording device in the Suburban. The "black box" device showed how fast the Suburban was going and that Denton didn't attempt to brake.

Denton was "well into the throttle, almost to floor" when the crash happened, Adams said.

He said text messages on Denton's phone from the hour before the crash revealed he was having "personal problems." Denton was not texting at the moment of impact.

Adams declined to release the texts or say more about Denton's personal issues.

McAuslan's official finding, reported by KOVE-KDLY Radio ( http://bit.ly/rCrftN), was that Denton's death was a suicide and the deaths of the four others were homicides. McAuslan called it a murder-suicide.

"He did an intentional act that took the lives of four people," McAuslan said.

A toxicology report wasn't back yet.

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, according to a patrol release Monday.

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, but McAuslan said the collision killed all four instantly.

Denton was a senior at Lander Valley High School, a well-liked, top-notch student who played the alto saxophone, said the school's band director, Tyler Surrell.

Surrell, who said he is not related to any of the crash victims who share his last name, suggested Denton may not have deliberately caused the wreck.

"He could have been upset, could have been crying," Surrell said. "And by the time he looked up, it could have been too late."

The four killed in the van were American Indians: The Surrell family members were Eastern Shoshone, and Escamilla was Northern Arapaho, said Ivan Posey of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

"As a community, we're still absorbing the losses and supporting the families," Posey said.

The two tribes share the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation.

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

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