Documents shed new light on crash that left three farmworkers dead and triggered a federal investigation

The stop in Salem was only to be brief for the 16 seasonal workers.

They had worked all day loading Christmas trees into delivery trucks at a Corvallis farm and now, at week’s end, they were on their way to homes they shared in Woodburn and Gervais.

First, though, it was payday.

The van carrying them all pulled up at the Northeast Salem home of their boss, where they pocketed their paychecks and settled in for the run home.

But moments and a mile away, three of them would be dead and eight injured in one of the worst traffic collisions in recent Salem times.

The crash between the 2006 Chevrolet Express van ferrying the workers and a Ford F350 pickup truck steered by a 19-year-old Salem man occurred on the evening Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at the intersection of Northeast Sunnyview and Cordon Roads.

The collision emerged anew in the news last month as federal regulators announced they were penalizing the Salem company who had hired the men. And documents released to Salem Reporter by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office under a public records request provided never-before-disclosed details about what happened in those last moments leading to the collision.

A year and a half later, a memorial remains at the intersection with flowers, crosses, empty cans of Modelo beer and pictures of the men who died in the crash – Andres Alonzo-Canil, 41; Miguel Alonzo-Lucas, 39 and Diego Lucas-Felipe, 18.

They worked for JMG Labor Contractor, a farm labor supplier owned by Jose Mota Gonzalez of Salem. Last month, his company settled a U.S. Department of Labor investigation for $32,500.

With Christmas approaching, Mota’s employees were working long hours on Holiday Tree Farms, a Corvallis grower of Christmas trees that were sold at Home Depot and Costco stores.

Mota said he didn’t know the Corvallis crew well, but they were good workers. While they labored in the wet conditions harvesting Christmas trees, Mota said he brought them food for Thanksgiving, including chicken, mashed potatoes and sodas.

Salem Reporter was unsuccessful in reaching the surviving workers or the families of those who died that November night. But documents provide some details about what happened.

The police records show that out of the 16 workers, four lived together at one house in Woodburn and two at another in the city. Four lived in a house in Gervais and in another two in a different house in the town.

A photo of a fatal crash at the intersection of the intersection of Northeast Sunnyview and Cordon Roads that occurred on Nov. 29, 2019. (Courtesy/Marion County Sheriff’s Office)

After stopping for the checks at Mota’s house at around 7:10 p.m., Ezequiel Pablo-Gaspar drove the van east on Northeast Sunnyview Road, aiming to get to Cordon Road for the swing to the north, likely heading for Interstate 5 and home.

He told police later he had a beer while stopped (Mota insists there was no beer consumed at his house) and a later blood draw at Salem Hospital put his blood alcohol level at 0.03, under Oregon’s 0.08 limit. He was driving even though his license was suspended, the reports show.

In the van, one man was on the phone, another dozed off. They sat in four rows – the driver and a front-seat passenger, and the rest arrayed in the three rows of seats in a rig designed to carry 15 people. They ranged in age from 14 to 64.

Pablo-Gaspar, a migrant from Guatemala, saw a green light at the intersection where he intended to turn – an area of farm fields and houses.

Witnesses differed on the light. Pablo-Gaspar insisted the light was a circle green, meaning that it would have been a green light for vehicles coming the other direction to go through the intersection.

One passenger in the van and a witness to the crash told deputies that the signal was the green arrow, meaning Pablo-Gaspar would have been free to turn after oncoming traffic would be held by a red light.

Deputies concluded in their investigation that Pablo-Gaspar was right – and that he disobeyed a traffic signal by turning when he did.

He told deputies he never saw the white Ford coming at the van at 55 mph.

Cory Kudna, the driver of the truck, said that he had a green light but the van turned in front of him, giving him no time to react. He was uninjured.

The Ford struck the passenger side of the van. Police found no sign of braking by either vehicle.

The collision “bent, twisted and forced rearward” the van’s front passenger compartment to a passenger row of the vehicle. Pablo-Gaspar wasn’t injured.

Diego Alonzo-Perez, 14, later told deputies through a translator at Salem Hospital that he was sitting in the fourth row of the van at the time of the collision, glass spraying throughout the cab. He looked over and saw his father, Miguel Alonzo-Lucas, 39, face down with his hat over his head. He was dead.

Police, fire and medic crews responded, finding dead and injured passengers. Three of the passengers had disappeared from the scene, likely fearing arrest for having escaped federal immigration monitoring in California.

Deputies found Andres Alonzo-Canil trapped in the front seat, dead. Lucas-Felipe, seated behind him, was trapped as well and died where he sat. They still had their paychecks in their pockets.

Investigators found open Modelo beer cans in the van.

They had a challenge communicating with the survivors as they pieced together what happened.

“It was difficult because none of the passengers in the van spoke English and the scene was very chaotic,” Sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Van Horn wrote in her report.

Deputies questioned passengers being treated at the hospital and later tracked them to their homes.

According to Deputy Doug Bush’s report, Pablo-Gaspar said that uninjured passengers left the scene of the crash because they were wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after cutting off their monitoring anklets in California. Pablo-Gaspar gave deputies an address for a house in Woodburn.

Bush drove to the house to interview passengers. He wrote that he could see movement inside the house but the lights were turned off as soon as he knocked on the door. He left the house in Woodburn to knock on the door of another house in Gervais to find other passengers from the crash.

“Again, I knocked and could see someone looking out the window through the blinds,” he said.

But no one answered the door.

Deputies visited the workers in the hospital trying to recreate what happened. Jose Baltazar-Lucas at the time was in critical condition in at Portland’s Oregon Health and Science University hospital and at least seven others were discharged after being treated at Salem Hospital for their injuries.

Deputies found Diego Lucas-Perez, 49, a passenger of the vehicle confused as to why he was in Salem Hospital. He had no memory of the accident and thought he had just arrived in the U.S. for work.

Men like Lucas-Perez are a part of fluid but crucial workforce that process Oregon’s crops and livestock.

According to state figures, an estimated 174,000 migrant and seasonal workers and their relatives are an integral part of Oregon’s multi-billion dollar agricultural sector. They play a particularly vital role in Marion County, which is the state’s most agriculturally productive.

The U.S. Department of Labor concluded that JMG Labor violated federal labor laws because the van driver didn’t have a valid license or insurance, and the company allowed workers to be transported without required authorization. The company was also operating without active registration as a farm labor contractor, according to the department

Mota said the penalty was unfair. He said he was late in renewing his registration but that didn’t cause the accident.

“The van wasn’t mine. They weren’t on my liability (insurance), they weren’t on work hours,” he said. “I don’t provide transportation; I provide work.”

According to records, Mota arrived at the crash, cooperated with police and gave them a list of people who had picked up their paychecks. Mota said he was at the hospital the night of the crash and helped every family financially, sending money to Guatemala where some of the workers were from.

“They make me seem like I’m the bad guy,” he said. “I have workers come to me and say, ‘Why did they do this to you? You’re one of the best contractors we work for.’”

Reyna Lopez, executive director of Woodburn-based farmworkers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, recalled how her family moved to the Salem area so her father could work on Christmas tree farms.

She described how the work left her father with bad back pain that required him to wear a brace. Other workers were injured working in the industry and some even died on the job, she said.  

Lopez hopes that the crash prompts a shift in work culture to one of compliance and safety to protect the laborers.

While she said she could empathize with the contractor, she said companies that hire migrant labor need to make sure they are up to date on their licenses and have safety protocols so workers get home safely. She said if there are barriers to getting in compliance regulators should work to help remove those barriers.

“My heart is broken frankly from the tragedy of these families and for Mr. Mota,” said Lopez. “Nobody wanted this. It hurts everyone.”

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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