published Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Driver in hit-and-run crash that killed Chattanooga woman surrenders to authorities

  • photo
    Cynthia Wild Joyner, a special education advocate, was killed in a wrong-way car crash near Nashville in July and the driver of the other car fled the scene and was captured this week.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Vicki Apgar was picking her children up from karate practice Monday night when she got a phone call that flung her back five months, to her bedroom, to another phone call.

That time, around 4:30 a.m. on July 20, Apgar's younger brother woke her up.

"Vicky," he said, "I got to tell you something."

"What is it?"

"First, I want to tell you that I love you."

"Just tell me what's wrong."

"Cynthia's been in an accident."

"Well," Apgar said, "is Cynthia OK?"

She wasn't. Riding home from a concert in Nashville at 2:30 a.m., Cynthia Johanna Joyner, of Chattanooga, and three friends sat in a car heading east through Rutherford County, Tenn., on Interstate 24. Then, the driver of the car would later tell the Tennessee Highway Patrol, all they could see were two headlight beams.

A 35-year-old man named Ruben Prado Pena was driving his SUV down the same lane, heading west, the wrong way. The driver of Joyner's car swerved, but the two vehicles still met, the front right side of Pena's SUV burying itself in the other car.

Three people in Joyner's car survived, but she didn't.

Pena, meanwhile, ran away, according to the THP.

And for the next five months, he was free -- in some sense, at least. But on Nov. 14, he called the Metropolitan Nashville Police Dispatch Center and asked about the investigation of the crash. A dispatcher then called a detective, and the detective called the U.S. Marshals office.

Adrian Romaniuk, the district fugitive task force coordinator with the U.S. Marshals Service, gave his contact information to the dispatcher. If Pena calls again, Romaniuk said, pass my info along.

Then, on Friday, Pena called Romaniuk. They talked for hours, but Pena declined to turn himself in.

"He thought he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison," Danny Shelton, a U.S. Marshals public affairs officer, said. "I don't think that's going to be the case."

On Monday, Pena and Romaniuk talked again. Pena was in Mexico, but this time he agreed to meet officials at the port of entry of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge in Laredo, Texas.

Pena remained at the Webb County, Texas, Jail on Tuesday afternoon. He is awaiting extradition to Tennessee, where the THP will charge him with leaving the scene of a fatal accident and being a fugitive from justice.

On Monday evening, Apgar got a call from Joyner's husband. He told her Pena had been caught. Neither side lingered on the phone. Just talking about the man who allegedly killed Joyner brought pain.

"It's frustrating that it took this long," Apgar, 29, of Sandy Run, S.C., said Tuesday. "It wouldn't be as bad if he hadn't taken off, if he had just stood there to take the heat. He doesn't understand my sister. If he did, he would know that she would have been his biggest advocate, that we would have been his biggest advocate. ... But he just left her there. That's how you do an animal."

Joyner's mother, 49-year-old Jackie Scott, also heard the news Monday night from Joyner's husband. She said she has forgiven Pena.

"What's going to happen is going to happen," she said. "Me harboring ill will or hatred is not going to help."

Apgar and Joyner grew up in South Carolina. Joyner was three years older. They slept in the same bed until Apgar turned 8 because Apgar was afraid to sleep alone. When Apgar was a freshmen at Blackville Hilda High School, other students knew not to mess with Joyner's little sister.

As adults, they talked on the phone for hours. Then, about 5 years ago, Joyner moved to Chattanooga with her husband, in part because the city contained better resources for Matthew, Joyner's son with autism.

Here, Joyner established herself as an advocate for families with an autistic child. She worked with local movie theaters to lower the volume for children with autism who were sensitive to stimuli. She organized meetings between those children and police officers. She raised money.

This year, the Chattanooga Autism Center named Joyner its Volunteer of the Year. And today, five months after the crash, a mural of Joyner sits at the corner of Houston Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

In recent years, Joyner and Apgar did not talk on the phone as much as they used to. Joyner needed to keep attention on her son, so instead the sisters communicated through text messages and Facebook chats.

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    Ruben Prado Pena, 35. He surrendered to a U.S. marshal on Monday afternoon and is being charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. He is being held in the Webb County, Texas, Jail.

Still, here and there, they called each other. In the weeks before Joyner's death, Apgar planned to visit Chattanooga. They talked about it on the phone. The conversation seemed to last hours.

Finally, Apgar had to get off the line.

"I have to go," she told her sister. "But I love you. I'll see you soon."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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