No arrest yet in crash that killed leader in Chattanooga's autism community

photo A mural on the corner of Houston Street and ML King Boulevard depicts Cynthia Wild Joyner, a local autism leader who was killed in a hit and run car accident. A memorial service for Joyner is being planned in her honor this month. Staff photo by Shawn Paik

IF YOU GOWhat: Memorial service for Cynthia JoynerWhen: 6 to 8 p.m. SundayWhere: Lindsay Street Hall

Three weeks after a wrong-way driver killed a leader in Chattanooga’s autism community, the suspect is still at large.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said Thursday that officers still are searching for Ruben Prado Pena, 35, who police say ran away after crashing his vehicle into a car carrying 31-year-old Cynthia Wild Joyner.

It was July 20. Police said Pena was driving a 2003 Chevy Tahoe west in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 24 in Rutherford County when the big vehicle struck the Ford Fiesta carrying Joyner, police said. Three people with her, all Chattanooga-area residents, were injured.

Felony warrants for leaving the scene of a fatal car crash have been issued for Pena. Other possible charges are pending, said Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Kevin Crawford.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Autism Center volunteers and friend Tara Viland plan a memorial service for Joyner this weekend.

“People may not think they could accomplish something because their life is so busy, [but] Cynthia showed that it could be done,” said Dave Buck, acting director of the Chattanooga Autism Center.

A wife and mother of two, including a teenage son with autism, Joyner volunteered some 20 to 30 hours a week at the autism center. Her mission was to create comfortable spaces for children with autism and their families and to foster understanding between the public and the autism community, said Viland.

About a dozen children with autism and their families are expected to attend the Chattanooga Lookouts game on Aug. 18. Before her death, Joyner established the event, which will include a skybox where children with autism can go to calm down if they get overstimulated during the game, said Buck.

Joyner helped to raise thousands of dollars for the Chattanooga Autism Center. She established a relationship with movie theaters that allowed autistic children sensitive to sound to see movies with the volume turned lower. She also arranged for law enforcement officers to meet some autistic children and their families.

At least 6,000 people in the Greater Chattanooga area have autism, according to the Chattanooga Autism Center. The center serves about 4,500 people a year, including phone calls, people attending conferences and walking through the doors.

“I don’t know of anyone else who has given so much to the autism community in such a short period of time,” said Buck. “We want to celebrate all that she started.”

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.