Suicide not ‘definitive’ in crash that killed Austin city worker

A deadly crash on FM 973 involved a City of Austin truck. (Chris Sadeghi/KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A City of Austin worker who died in a head-on collision with a semi-truck July 22 on FM 973 south of Webberville Road wrote no obvious suicide note nor made unusual driving maneuvers prior to the deadly collision, police and other investigative reports obtained by KXAN show.

An autopsy report shows 47-year-old Ernesto Gonzales, an employee within the Resource Recovery Department, died from blunt force injuries in the early afternoon collision witnessed by workers at a nearby construction site. They told investigators Gonzales’ 2008 City of Austin Ford pickup truck crossed the center line and into the path of the semi. Its driver was unhurt even though the collision pushed the rig onto its side, records show.

The crash was unusual in that it involved an on-the-job city worker and it happened so quickly the semi driver had no time to react. The reports show once officers responding to the scene heard the city vehicle swerved into the semi at the last second, accident investigators were called off and homicide detectives were called in. They investigate any manner of death in the City of Austin including suicides.

Ultimately, the collision reports obtained through open records requests show crash investigators within the Austin Police Department were unable to conclude definitively if Gonzales intended to take his own life that afternoon.

Investigators recovered crash data from what is commonly known as the ‘black box’ in the engine block of Gonzales’ City of Austin pickup truck. Similar powertrain control modules are now in the vast majority of vehicles in the US, according to government data. It shows before Gonzales’ crash the vehicle he was driving:

  • took 12 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph
  • braked sharply for more than one second before the impact

“The data was consistent with the driver turning onto FM-973 from State Highway 71 and gradually increasing his speed up to the speed limit (55 miles per hour) and a little beyond (60 miles per hour),” wrote Austin Police Det. Jeffrey Eads. “Twelve seconds is a reasonable time period for this to have occurred over a distance of 0.2 miles.”

As well, records lay out witness accounts including that of the semi driver. Gonzales’ truck did not veer – but drifted into the oncoming lane. One witness said given the truck’s movement it appeared Gonzales might have fallen asleep.

Was he distracted?

The Police reports show Gonzales’ cell phone was in his lunch cooler on the passenger side of the truck. An examination of its text messages found no obvious suicide or goodbye note.

“There is no definitive statement that (Gonzales) intended to commit suicide and there was no ‘goodbye,’” wrote Det. Kerry Scanlon in the report.

Finally, the autopsy report found no evidence of alcohol or other drugs in his system nor obvious medical issues such as a weak or damaged heart.

One poignant note emerged from the police reports. After investigators returned Gonzales’ personal effects to his relatives including a men’s ring and two lottery tickets, the report notes Gonzales’ wife, Mary, asked the detective, “Where are his coins? He had 2-3 silver coins (a Mexican cein pesos and a cinco pesos).” The detective reported he reexamined the collision scene photos and even returned to look through the mangled truck. In the end, he could find no sign of the coins.

On July 22, Gonzales left behind four children from two marriages. They include two daughters and a son all under 13 years old. A public employer like the City of Austin typically would have a life insurance policy to compensate families of city staff who die on the job. KXAN is waiting to hear back if a payout has been made.

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