Chronic speeder pleads guilty to murder for crash that killed 6-year-old boy

Donnie Ray Cobb, the chronic speeder who killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas in a high-speed crash last year, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Monday. He was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

On June 26, 2021, Cobb was racing another driver at 100 mph in Gaston County before Cobb lost control of his Audi and slammed head-on into a car carrying Liam and his father, police say.

After pleading guilty to second-degree murder, impaired driving and other charges, Cobb — now 47 — will serve between 22 and 28 years in prison.

“This family had their lives completely changed in the blink of an eye because of reckless driving,” Gaston District Attorney Travis Page told the Observer. “For the past year, this family has endured horrible consequences. Today’s judgment sends a message that actions have consequences for reckless drivers as well. Mr. Cobb may spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Cobb and 21-year-old Gracie Eaves were strangers the day of the high-speed crash. Yet they started an impromptu road race that resulted in Cobb losing control of his car and smashing into the sedan, authorities say. Liam was strapped into the back seat.

In court on Monday, Cobb offered the family a tearful apology. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never meant for this to happen.”

Liam’s mother, Brandi Birrittier, said speeding drivers need to know the potential impact of their actions.

“No amount of sorries will bring Liam back,” she said after the court hearing. “You go from holding your son’s hand every day and kissing him every day to nothing. It’s really lonely. It’s heartbreaking.”

To try to protect others from what her family is enduring, Birrittier and Page said they will work together to push for a new state statute called Liam’s Law. It would mandate tougher penalties for speeding drivers who wind up injuring or killing others.

“I think that would be an appropriate way for the community to honor Liam,” Page said. “In six short years, he made such an impact on the people who knew and loved him.”

Prior to the fatal crash, Cobb had been charged with dozens of offenses, ranging from impaired driving to felony larceny. He also had a history of getting off easy on speeding charges, The Observer revealed in a detailed story about the crash published in October.

Monday’s impaired driving conviction — Cobb’s fourth — resulted from him having amphetamines and benzodiazepines in his system at the time of the fatal wreck, Page said.

Donnie Ray Cobb, shortly after the June 26 crash that killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas.
Donnie Ray Cobb, shortly after the June 26 crash that killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas.

A deadly pattern

Cobb is one of many chronic speeders in North Carolina who have repeatedly landed lenient deals in court, a 2021 Observer and Raleigh News & Observer investigation found. The reporting revealed that extreme speeding is rampant on many North Carolina roads and that the consequences can be deadly.

Family and friends created this memorial along U.S. 74 in Gaston County to remember 6-year old Liam Lagunas, who was killed at the site in June.
Family and friends created this memorial along U.S. 74 in Gaston County to remember 6-year old Liam Lagunas, who was killed at the site in June.

And scores of North Carolina motorists keep driving after they are repeatedly charged with extreme speeding.

In hundreds of cases, high-speed crashes have killed children like Liam. In the decade prior to his death, more than 420 children were killed in high-speed wrecks in North Carolina, the Observer found.

On the night of the fatal collision, Cobb was driving east on U.S. 74 when he and a Dodge Challenger driven by Eaves began racing, according to the Highway Patrol.

After the racing cars sideswiped, Cobb lost control of his Audi, which hurled across the grassy median and into the westbound lanes — head-on into Lagunas’ Altima.

Liam’s father, Santiago Lagunas, suffered serious injuries in the crash.

“This won’t take the pain away,” Santiago Lagunas said of Cobb’s sentencing after Monday’s court hearing. “But I’m pretty sure Liam would have been happy about this.”

Eaves, the other driver, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury last month. She was sentenced to 41 to 53 months in prison.