A midnight four-wheeling excursion Saturday killed two Payson residents, one of them a middle school student, after a Jeep Wrangler carrying eight people rolled down a steep embankment near Doll Baby Ranch Road.
Devin Frantzke, 14, and Jeff Johnston, 55, of Payson, died after being ejected from a 2010 four-door Jeep Wrangler. Paramedics flew two other people to a Valley hospital in critical condition, but the four other passengers escaped with minor bumps and bruises.
Driver Sharrod Stone, 43, now faces charges of vehicular manslaughter because authorities say he was driving too fast for the winding, wet road.
The group was reportedly “night wheeling” on a loop from Cracker Jack Mine Road to Doll Baby Ranch Road and back to Payson, said Det. Karen Baltz with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Just after 12:30 a.m. Sunday, as Stone drove south on Cracker Jack, he lost control of the Jeep, sending it rolling 30 feet down an embankment west of the Doll Baby Ranch. The vehicle came to a stop on its side after ejecting everyone inside, Baltz said.
No one was reportedly wearing a seat belt.
As people came to, they started yelling out to each other. Some responded, some others lay unconscious and others were missing, Baltz said.
When Stone realized Johnston was dead, he reportedly ran off to get help. The area lacked cell phone reception, although the Doll Baby Ranch was less than a half a mile away.
When Stone reached the ranch, he allegedly jumped into a vehicle that had keys in it and drove up a hill where he could get a cell signal.
As Stone called for help, simultaneously at the ranch, Cindy Labash called the police to report someone had stolen her vehicle, Baltz said.
When sheriff’s deputies and Lifestar Ambulance medics arrived, Stone showed them to the scene where paramedics pronounced both Johnston and Devin Frantzke dead.
Native Air airlifted two other people in critical condition to the Valley, including Brooke Varga, 39, and one of Stone’s juvenile sons. It is unclear if either has been released.
Three other passengers, including Anjeannette Boyd, 37, Devin’s father, Mark Frantzke, 43, and Stone’s other juvenile son had only minor injuries and refused to go to the hospital, said Charlie Smith, general manager at Lifestar.
Smith said they encourage those involved in a wreck, especially one involving fatalities, to seek medical attention, but patients have the right to refuse care.
“If I was in accident and someone was killed, I would want to go to get checked out,” he said.
Although outwardly they may appear OK, when the adrenaline wears off, many people can spiral into an emotional wreck or realize they have internal injuries, he said.
Baltz said it appears those riding on the right side of the Jeep sustained the most serious injuries, since the vehicle rolled off the west side of the road.
It appears everyone was thrown from the vehicle and landed near the bottom of the hill, she said.
Cracker Jack is a narrow, dirt road that winds from Highway 87 west through the forest, crossing over the East Verde River several times, before connecting near the end of Doll Baby Ranch Road.
It is a popular route with off-roaders.
Baltz said Stone was driving too fast for the muddy conditions, especially with an overloaded vehicle.
Detectives are still trying to determine how many times the Jeep rolled and if alcohol was involved.
Baltz said the scene was frantic when authorities arrived, with everyone visibly upset.
Smith said it is normal for those involved in a wreck to have varying degrees of injury. However, when a passenger dies and others escape uninjured, the guilt can be hard to deal with.
Along with three Lifestar ambulances, the Payson Fire Department sent an engine and Native Air sent two helicopters.
This is the second fatal wreck involving a Payson Unified School District student this year.
In January, Saige Bloom died when the accelerator on her vehicle reportedly stuck, sending her speeding through Payson traffic before she wrecked near Walmart.
An investigation into the cause of that accident is ongoing.