MULLICA TOWNSHIP — The roadside memorial to Belinda Dillihay and Christina Rivera shows the time that has passed since the Atlantic City women lost their lives last March, as well as the pain their families feel as they still seek answers.
An Easter egg, a Christmas bow tied to a plastic bench and a valentine wreath sit in a cleared patch on the edge of woods, feet from where the late-night, head-on collision between an SUV and the car Dillihay and Rivera were in happened.
Plaques bearing pictures of each woman, lit at night by solar powered lights, hang from a tree at the center of the memorial along Route 30.
The tree has rotted, and one of the lights had fallen down, but on a recent afternoon, family members reattached it as they talked about not giving up on finding answers to questions about their loved ones’ deaths.
“I can’t believe it’s almost been a year,” said Dillihay’s daughter Nicole Dillihay, of Galloway Township.
“And we still feel the same pain,” added Geraldo Martinez, Rivera’s brother, of Mullica Township. “Probably even more.”
Family members of Dillihay and Rivera met with officials from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office earlier this month, and while they declined to mention specifics about what was discussed, they said the year-long investigation may soon yield results.
The main delay in the case has been testing DNA evidence found in the Jeep Wrangler that apparently swerved across the roadway and hit the women’s car March 31, 2010.
The only person in the vehicle after the crash was Ottoway Harrison, 29, of Mullica Township, but according to initial reports he was not in the driver’s seat and the doors to his vehicle were swung open, leading witnesses at the scene to believe other people fled the scene.
Several Dillihay and Rivera family members said they do not believe that, but they await the results of the DNA tests from the vehicle, which so far have taken much longer to analyze than an average case.
Police lab delay
DNA evidence from all but one county in the state is analyzed at the New Jersey State Police Technology Complex in Hamilton Township, Mercer County. A facility two miles west of the accident scene is the southern transfer station for evidence to be taken to northern New Jersey for analysis. Agencies can also send hair, blood, semen and other DNA samples to private facilities, but they pay extra for those services.
Howard Baum, director of the State Police Office of Forensic Science, said it takes about two months for a DNA sample to be examined and returned, but that can vary by the seriousness of the case, with violent crimes taking top priority.
“We’re faster than just about every lab in the United States,” said Baum, who said some labs elsewhere in the country could take an average of nine months.
Still, Baum said, his office of about 30 to 40 people handled about 5,200 cases last year, meticulously examining each piece of evidence through a variety of methods.
“Everything takes time,” Baum said. “We check and double-check our work because we have to be right. ... It’s a long cumbersome process. It’s not TV.”
It is not clear what DNA evidence was recovered from the SUV at the scene and why it has taken so long for any apparent progress in the case. The Prosecutor’s Office, to which Mullica Township police deferred all questions, refused to discuss the ongoing investigation.
“We have been in contact with the family through our Victim/Witness Unit, and we have been telling them that the matter is under review,” said an e-mailed statement from First Assistant Prosecutor James McClain.
Until earlier this week, Nicole Dillihay said, she had received little information since the crash.
“I just thought it was strange that the day of the accident that they said that it could take three days or six months,” she said last week. “And now, on March 31, it will be one year later, and, with nobody telling you anything, I just feel that I’m forgotten about.”
Belinda Dillihay, 61, and Rivera, 29, were both Atlantic City residents. Rivera was dating Dillihay’s son Daryl Dillihay at the time, and their then-13-year-old son, Immod, was in the back seat of the Saturn they were driving back to the city.
At about 10:20 p.m. on March 31, the Jeep, which was registered to Ethel Harrison, slammed into their car. Both women sustained fatal internal injuries, while Immod broke both legs and his arm.
After months in a wheelchair, the now-14-year-old is walking and dancing again, even with metal plates in his legs.
Nicole Dillihay and Daryl Dillihay both said that Immod doesn’t remember the accident at all, saying it might either be a symptom of the drugs he was given to ease his pain immediately after the crash or the emotional trauma.
“Justice needs to be served,” said Daryl Dillihay. “I don’t know how this guy is running around free as a bird.”
The family said they were told that the DNA evidence has since been returned, and after talking with the Prosecutor’s Office this week, they were hopeful that they will not have to wait too much longer for that justice.
“I don’t plan on leaving this alone,” said Nicole Dillihay as she stood with her arms crossed, looking over the memorial to her mother and friend.
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