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Family, friends hope to keep memory of teenager alive

Three years after a 14-year-old girl died in an auto accident near Merced, her mother, sisters and other relatives returned Tuesday afternoon to the crash site to pay homage to her memory. They also visited the cemetery where the lively teen is buried.

Gabriela Rodriguez said not a day goes by that she doesn't think of her daughter, Brenda Reyes, who died early Oct. 9, 2004, in a single-vehicle accident on Gerard Avenue near Tyler Road.

The man arrested on charges of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and filing a false police report in connection with the accident, Salvador Alejo Solis, 24, of Hornitos, posted bond after his arrest and then vanished. Rodriguez thinks Solis may have escaped to Mexico.

Reyes' girlfriend, Kristen Johnson, 14, of Atwater, died 10 days later in a Modesto hospital. Another passenger in the Solis car, Joanna Valencia, 15, was treated and released from the Community Campus of Mercy Medical Center Merced and has since moved to Fresno. Solis was giving the girls a ride home when the accident happened.

Reyes is remembered as a friendly, talkative girl who was happy and singing even moments before her death early that Sunday morning. Her older sister, Hortencia Reyes, said she was the one in her family who most liked to hug and kiss her relatives.

"I miss her a lot, of course. We just want justice for her. She was too young to go so soon," Hortencia Reyes said.

There is a cross, an artificial flower wreath, candles, pictures, inscriptions and miniature sunflowers on the side of the road in an improvised shrine near the crash site. Rodriguez visits regularly to keep the spot clean. She returns often, saying it's where she feels closest to her daughter and where she drew her last breath. Hortencia Reyes said it's also where she feels close to her late sister.

"I don't think she will be at rest until they catch the guy (Solis). Part of our pain is they haven't gotten the guy," Rodriguez said.

Officer Shane Ferriera, public affairs officer for the Merced Area Office of the California Highway Patrol, said there is a nationwide $250,000 warrant for Solis' arrest. Solis was mentioned in an October, 2005, episode of "America's Most Wanted."

Ferriera said CHP officers searched Solis' places of employment and learned he had been working odd jobs in the Livingston area. There were several responses to the America's Most Wanted broadcast and a few other leads but nothing has panned out.

Rojelia Rodriguez, Reyes' aunt, was at the hospital when her niece was born. She said it's rumored Solis is in the Mexican state of Michoacan. She said her sister still is waiting for her daughter to return home. The family celebrated what would have been her 17th birthday Sept. 22 with a cake and balloons at Calvary Cemetery.

Reyes' sister, Gabriela Reyes, 18, witnessed the crash in which Solis' 1996 Mustang spun out and became airborne, striking a fence and power pole. She said her days are weird without her sister around and she misses her.

Another friend, Tiffany Rouse, 18, knew Brenda Reyes for three years. She said she didn't expect "anything like this to happen" and said words can't explain how she feels about Reyes' death.

Solis ran from the scene of the accident and later tried to file a report that his car was stolen. He was arrested when witnesses identified him as the driver of the car, according to CHP reports.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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