The family of a 20-year-old hit-and-run victim is searching for answers and trying to piece together what happened to their son the morning he was killed on a North Carolina highway.
Austin Baeza, a 20-year-old Eastern Carolina University student, was found dead in a ditch alongside Highway 33 in Pitt County on August 18.
Just after midnight, Austin had left the house he shared with his roommates in Greenville to go for a walk and clear his head, his mother, Nicolette Baeza, told HLN.
Shortly after 2 a.m., Austin began calling his parents, according to his mother. “He was upset and lost. He wanted to come home,” Baeza said. “We told him to stop walking. We asked him, ‘Where are you?’ but he wasn’t sure.”
“We went back and forth with the phone calls. It was what we called the perfect storm,” Baeza said. “He called us, but we couldn’t hear him. We would call him back, but he couldn’t hear us.”
Around 4 a.m., Austin called his parents in Mooresville to say he was going back to his house, according to his mother. Austin told his parents he had spoken to his roommate who said she would take him home to Mooresville in the morning if needed.
“We thought he was en route back to his house,” Baeza said. “But around 4:30 a.m. he texted his brother saying he was exhausted and didn’t know where he was.”
Around 9 a.m. that morning, police received a call in response to a hit-and-run fatality along Highway 33, Sergeant Kip Sales of the North Carolina Highway Patrol said. Sales said they quickly determined the victim, 20-year-old Austin Baeza, had died as a result of being struck by a car.
According to Austin’s mother, something didn’t feel right as she and her husband sat at the breakfast table that morning. “Austin’s phone was going immediately to voicemail,” she told HLN.
Minutes later, Baeza’s sister-in-law called her to say that state police were trying to get in touch with them in regards to their son.
“Five state troopers pulled up to our house. We were praying. I was looking in the backseat of every car that pulled up, but he wasn’t there,” Baeza said. “We knew it was bad.”
“It’s just pure agony,” Baeza said as she described how she felt after learning her son was killed. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare come true.”
Austin—a sports fanatic who dreamed of becoming a sportscaster—lived, ate and breathed ESPN, according to his mother. His death has left his family in despair.
“This is senseless, heartbreaking and shocking. We have no answers. We are praying for answers,” Baeza said.
Investigators say they are now searching for the vehicle they believe will lead them to the person responsible for Austin’s death. Specifically, authorities are looking for a Chrysler product, possibly a Jeep or Dodge. The car should have front-end damage to the headlight area, and possibly a missing mirror or antenna, police say.
In the meantime, Austin’s family commemorated their son at a candlelight vigil held at the crash site on Thursday night.
“We just want to find peace and understand what happened,” Jenny Lofgren, Austin’s aunt, told HLN. “We need closure and answers to know exactly what happened.”
Austin’s mother says she will forever remember her son as the “smart, charismatic, and loving” person he was. “I have no regrets,” Baeza said. “He knew we loved him, and we knew he loved us.”
Investigators say anyone with information regarding a vehicle with unexplained damage or anyone with information regarding the death of Austin Baeza is encouraged to contact Crimestoppers at 252-758-7777. There is a $5,000 reward.