Posted on October 13, 2005

Harvest of Death on the Eastern Shore

Bill Burke, Virginian-Pilot (Hampton Roads), Oct. 10

The Ford Escort was racing north on rural Seaside Road, its occupants headed home from a wedding, when it ran a stop sign at 55 mph.

The driver of a Ford F-150 traveling east through the intersection never saw the Escort, police said.

The T-bone crash killed the driver of the Escort, Rene Leyva-Perez, and 4-year-old Daniel Salazar, who was in the back seat. Daniel’s pregnant mother, Marina Salazar, and the driver of the pickup were injured.

When police arrived, they discovered that Leyva-Perez had no auto insurance or driver’s license — only a laminated ID card issued by the tomato-packing plant where he worked — and that the car was registered to a woman in Chesapeake and had Michigan plates.

In the Escort’s wreckage, they found empty cans of Modelo Especial — acclaimed in Mexico as “the elite of beers.”

That violent collision nine days ago, on an unlit stretch of Accomack County blacktop, is the latest example of a deadly trend:

Since 2002, more than 90 people have been injured and 18 killed on the Eastern Shore in accidents involving Hispanic workers driving rogue vehicles.

The fatalities represent about one-fourth of the 71 highway deaths on the Eastern Shore in that period, even though the year-round Hispanic population makes up only 5 percent of the region’s 51,000 residents. Those numbers swell during tomato-picking season, from July through early November, when most of the fatalities occurred.

Accidents like the one on Oct. 1 have helped make the 77-mile stretch of U.S. 13 from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line one of the most treacherous highways in Virginia. In 2003, the fatality rate — deaths per miles driven — on that span of U.S. 13 was more than four times the rates on Interstates 64, 81 and 95 in Virginia.

In all but three of the fatal accidents in which Hispanics were at the wheel, the drivers had no insurance. In most cases, the vehicles had no inspection stickers, the drivers carried no license and alcohol was a factor. The vast majority of the victims in the fatalities were Hispanic.

A review of State Police auto accident reports for 2002 through 2004 on the Eastern Shore also revealed that of the 179 accidents involving Hispanic laborers:

—Three-fourths of the drivers had no auto insurance — more than four times the national rate for uninsured motorists.

—Nearly all of the vehicles driven by migrants and other laborers were registered to other drivers.

—Ninety-three percent of the vehicles had out-of-state tags — most of them from Tennessee.

—The number of injuries per accident was about 50 percent higher than the statewide average.


The state of Tennessee appears to be an enabler for many of the illegal drivers.

Up and down the Eastern Shore, in the work camps and housing complexes where migrants and year-round laborers live, Tennessee plates abound. Eastern Shore law enforcers suspect there is a flourishing black market for Tennessee tags.

There has been speculation of a mail-order operation, but postmasters say they cannot discuss the nature of their mail. Officials for the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation would not say if they are looking into the Tennessee tag issue.

Tennessee’s titling and registration regulations are among the most lax in the nation. Several migrants interviewed recently said they got Tennessee tags because they were turned down by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Tennessee does not require identification or proof of insurance when a vehicle is titled and plates are issued, as long as the motorist pays cash. Most states require identification or proof of insurance; Virginia requires both.


Each year, tomato pickers follow the jobs north from Florida and Georgia to Virginia’s Eastern Shore by the thousands.

In July, the Hispanic population on the Shore swells from fewer than 3,000 — those who live there year-round — to about 7,000. The seasonal migrants stay until late October, sometimes into November, then head south.

In recent years, more workers have stuck around when the growing season ended. The number of Eastern Shore laborers who stayed behind and became full-time residents jumped from 177 in 1980 to 2,516 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Aug. 19, 2002

U.S. 13: Intoxicated migrant worker hit and killed while walking illegally on U.S. 13 at night. Plates: South Carolina.

Aug. 29, 2002

Va. 178: Car runs off road and strikes trees and pole, killing three. Plates: Tennessee.

Nov. 4, 2002

Va. 609: Driver killed when he runs into ditch, loses control and car overturns. Plates: Tennessee.

Feb. 3, 2003

Va. 187: Head-on collision kills two when driver blacks out and crosses median. Plates: Virginia.

July 24, 2003

Va. 609: Driver killed when vehicle runs off road and overturns. Plates: Florida.

Aug. 31, 2003

U.S. 13: Car with three occupants overturns, killing one; driver flees. Plates: Virginia.

Oct. 9, 2003

U.S. 13 (Business): Driver killed when he loses control of car, strikes tree then utility pole. Plates: Tennessee.

Nov. 2, 2003

U.S. 13: Driver killed when car runs off road at high speed and flips end-over-end five times. Plates: Tennessee.

Dec. 20, 2003

U.S. 13: Head-on collision involving two cars with migrant workers; driver of one dies the next day in Charlotte, N.C. Plates: North Carolina.

Dec. 24, 2003

U.S. 13: A head-on collision killed Debbie Thomas, above, a mother of three. Plates: Tennessee.

May 10, 2004

U.S. 13: Driver and passenger killed when they are thrown from one car and struck by two others. Plates: Texas.

July 22, 2004

U.S. 13: Driver killed when he loses control of vehicle and it overturns. Plates: Florida.

Oct. 1, 2005

Intersection of Va. 180 and Va. 600: Driver and child passenger killed when car runs stop sign and is broadsided by a pickup. Plates: Michigan.