Updated: 2:40 p.m. Friday
Taos mourned the loss of a high school teenager and a rising Texas country singer who both died in a three-vehicle crash north of the town Wednesday night (Sept. 4).
The Taos High School junior, 16-year-old Maria Elena Cruz from San Cristóbal, was the daughter of Pedro Cruz, the deputy chief of the San Cristóbal Volunteer Fire Department, who happened upon the crash as other first reponders worked to help the victims. The singer-songwriter was Kylie Rae Harris, 30, of Wylie, Texas who was on her way to perform at the Big Barn Dance, a four-day music festival in Taos. Both were wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe stated, "At this time I will say with most certainty that Miss Cruz was an innocent victim of this senseless crash caused by Ms. Harris."
Investigators with the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday evening speed appeared to be a contributing factor to the crash. The Sheriff’s Office also said alcohol was suspected as a contributing factor as well, but investigators are awaiting a toxicology report from the Office of the Medical Investigator.
The Sheriff’s Office determined Harris was driving south on State Road 522 toward Taos in a 2017 black Chevrolet Equinox. She clipped the back of a black Chevrolet Avalanche sending Harris’ vehicle into the northbound lane, causing her to hit the white 2008 Jeep driven by the teenage girl head on. Both of them died at the scene. The third driver was uninjured.
Hogrefe said evidence at the crash scene indicated alcohol may have been involved though he declined to provide specifics.
Harris had a prior DWI conviction in Collin County, Texas in 2017 and had been court ordered to install an ignition interlock device on her vehicle, according to court records.
Students and faculty at Taos High School were in shock Thursday morning as news of the loss of one of their own spread, with many visibly shaken. Maria Cruz had grown up with them, attending Taos Public Schools.
She was "beautiful, intelligent, kind, hard working, and inspirational," wrote one of her former teachers Patsy Anglada Alaniz on Facebook. "Her tragic death has impacted many young lives, former teachers, her beloved parents and little sister. "
According to an obituary posted with DeVargas Funeral Home of Taos, she worked at the southside Guadalajara Grill in Taos.
"Deputy Chief Pedro Cruz and his family are reeling," from the loss, said Taos County Fire Chief Mike Cordova in an email. "Pedro's family is all at home mourning her loss. At this point we are asking that people give the family some space for the next few days."
Cordova said people who wish to help the family financially, can drop off donations at the Taos County Fire and EMS office, 1397 Weimer Road in Taos for the time being.
A dinner originally planned to raise funds for the San Cristóbal Community Center will now be a fundraiser to help the Cruz family with funeral costs. The dinner is from 5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. Friday (Sept. 6) at the San Cristóbal Community Center in the village near the fire department. A Full Course Enchilada (Green, Red or Veggie) Dinner Plate $10 Adults, $5 Children.
Singer-songwriter Harris had released her third album in the spring that was well received by her fans in Texas and elsewhere. She appeared in the syndicated show Troubadour, TX in 2013, a documentary series following the lives of singers and songwriters.
Sarah Hearne Naftis , who helps organize the Big Barn Dance with her father Michael Hearne, said they were "absolutely devastated." She said Harris had been coming to the festival off and on for years, often invited by other musicians to jump up onstage and join in while they played. "This was the first year she was going to play her own set. She was a huge part of the Big Barn Dance family," Hearne Naftis said.
Harris leaves behind a 6-year-old daughter.
In a Twitter post Wednesday, Harris wrote, "Fuel range is 46 miles and I’m 36 from the nearest gas station. Dear baby Jesus please don’t let me get stranded in NM."
She also posted an emotional Instagram video posted before the accident, talking about all the years she had come to New Mexico with family and how most of them were gone now.
The crash shut down both lanes on State Road 522 for a few hours as investigators gathered evidence. The Office of the Medical Examiner was also called to the scene.
First Responders from Taos County Fire and EMS, Hondo-Seco Fire Department and Taos Fire Department assisted in the hours' long investigation.
The Taos County Sheriff’s Office is analyzing the crash data recorders from both vehicles. "These CDR’s will provide pertinent information that will affirm the findings of the investigation," according to a press release issued Thursday evening.
In an official statement, the Big Barn Dance organizers wrote: "devastated and saddened by the loss of two beautiful sous."
"Our heartfelt condolences go out to their failies. This tragedy is felt by the whole Taos community and the Barn Dance community."
Correction: Deputy fire chief Pedro Cruz was driving on State Road 522 and came upon the scene of the crash. He had not responded in his official capacity. The Hondo-Seco Fire Department was first on the scene, according to Taos County Fire Chief Michael Cordova.
Maria Elena Cruz was a junior at Taos High. An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect grade.