Mix-Up Over Dead Body in I-10 Wreck Almost Identical to 2006 Michigan Case

Over the weekend, the family of 19-year-old Abby Guerra held a carwash to try to raise money for a funeral. Guerra was in a car wreck about a week ago while driving home from Disneyland with some friends, and her family was told she was killed in the accident.

Only, she wasn't.

Guerra's family was told yesterday that the person the Department of Public Safety officials said was Guerra was her friend, 21-year-old Marlena Cantu, who was also in the car during the accident.


Guerra was actually alive at St. Joseph's Hospital in critical condition.

The devastating toll the mix-up has had on both the families of Guerra and Cantu aside, the story is almost identical to a similar case of mistaken identity that happened in Michigan in 2006.

In that case, two Michigan girls -- now-19-year-old Whitney Cerak and then-22-year-old Laura VanRyn -- were driving from Taylor University when their car was hit by a tractor-trailer in northern Indiana.

Four people were killed in the wreck and Cerak's family was told she was among the dead. VanRyn's parents were told that their daughter was alive, but in a coma-like state at a hospital.

A funeral was held for Cerak while the parents of VanRyn sat in a hospital for weeks waiting for news on the condition of the girl they believed was their daughter.

As what the family believed was VanRyn emerged from the coma, her family said on their blog that the girl was getting better, but "still has times where she'll say things that don't make much sense." 

That was because the girl they had been taking care of wasn't their daughter, it was Whitney Cerak.

The case got a lot of attention -- as is Arizona's mix-up -- and was even the subject of an MSNBC documentary.

Check out the full story here.

As expected, the families were furious with police -- and rightly so; in one case, a family was told their daughter was dead when she wasn't and another family was told that their daughter, who they thought survived a gruesome car wreck, was actually dead.

In each case, though, both girls look fairly similar. And the chaos of a deadly car crash is bound to lead to mistakes. The DPS isn't commenting on the mix-up yet.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
James King
Contact: James King