Second driver charged in street-racing crash that killed 6-year-old in Gaston County

·3 min read

A second driver has been criminally charged in connection with the street-racing crash that killed a 6-year-old boy in Gaston County last month.

On June 26, just before 9:30 p.m., Gracie Eaves was driving at about 100 mph on U.S. 74, racing another driver, when the two cars collided, according to a Highway Patrol crash report. The other car, driven by Donnie Ray Cobb, crossed a grass median into oncoming traffic. Cobb’s car crashed head-on with a vehicle, killing Liam Lagunas three weeks shy of his seventh birthday.

Eaves, a 20-year-old resident of Bessemer City, was charged Monday with involuntary manslaughter, speed competition, reckless driving, felony hit and run and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. On Tuesday, she was in the Gaston County jail, awaiting a bond hearing.

Gracie Eaves
Gracie Eaves

The two drivers apparently didn’t know each other, according to Highway Patrol Trooper Ray Pierce.

“From what I’ve learned, (the decision to race) was just spontaneous,” Pierce said. “... It was just a bad decision made by both drivers.”

In 2017, Eaves was charged with driving 51 mph in a 25 mph zone, but that speeding charge was dismissed, records show.

Cobb, 46, was charged earlier this month with second-degree murder and other charges stemming from the crash.

Cobb was charged with murder because he, unlike Eaves, was driving while impaired, Pierce said. “Speed, coupled with the impairing substance, would be enough to meet the threshold (for a murder charge),” the trooper said.

Cobb has a long history of speeding charges as well as criminal offenses ranging from DWI to felony larceny and breaking and entering. All but one of six prior speeding charges were dismissed or reduced. One speeding charge, filed against him in May, is pending.

Cobb’s attorney declined to comment on the case Tuesday afternoon. Eaves’ attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

A recent investigation by The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer in Raleigh found that extreme speeding has become rampant on many North Carolina roads, and that the consequences can be deadly. Despite that, North Carolina courts do not punish speeding aggressively.

When people are charged with driving 20 mph or more over the speed limit, nearly 92% get breaks in the courts that allow them to avoid the full penalties, the investigation found. Over the past five years, more than 75 drivers who had extreme-speeding charges reduced or dismissed later became involved in fatal crashes.

‘Liam was my world’

Liam Lagunas
Liam Lagunas

Like many other 6-year-olds, Liam loved practicing taekwondo, riding his bike and playing soccer, according to his mother, Brandi Birrittier.

But in other ways, he was far from typical.

“He always talked about helping the homeless,” Birrittier told the Observer Tuesday. “Every time we’d pass someone homeless on the road, he’d ask why. Why didn’t he have a family? He would talk about how we could help the people who didn’t have what we have.”

Sometimes, Liam would ask what heaven was like, his mother said.

“He was just spiritually connected in ways that others weren’t,” she said. “He touched so many people’s lives. He just had that special nature. Compassion. Kindness.”

Liam finished first grade earlier this year. But he was already talking about becoming a doctor, his mother said.

Those dreams ended on June 26. Liam’s father, Santiago Lagunas, was driving that night when Cobb’s Audi flew into their car.

“(Liam) didn’t deserve this,” his mother said. “He had his whole life in front of him.”

Liam wasn’t the crash’s only victim. His father suffered serious injuries to his spine and neck. He still can’t work or drive, and he continues having trouble standing for long periods, Birrittier said.

“He’s struggling to get his life back,” she said.

Now, Birrittier would like to lobby for new laws to help reduce the risk of high-speed crashes. But she’s struggling, too.

“Liam was my world,” she said. “He was my only child. What these people have done they can’t replace.”

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