Fleeting peace at vigil for hit-and-run victim

Driver's identity unknown five weeks after crash

Candlelight vigil Thursday at the site of an unsolved fatal crash

GREENVILLE - A friend to the shy who dreamed of becoming a sports anchor, 20-year-old Austin Baeza was remembered by friends and family Thursday, at the site of the hit-and-run crash that claimed his life.

Baeza was walking home from a friend's house during the early morning hours of August 18, when he was struck and killed along Highway 33 in Greenville. Highway Patrol described the vehicle as an older Chrysler vehicle, possibly a gray Jeep or Dodge.

The incident happened near the intersection of North Memorial Drive and N.C. 33, leaving the car with substantial damage on the right-hand side.

Thursday night, dozens of people returned to the white cross memorial marking where Austin was killed, lighting candles around the site. His mother, Nicolette Baeza, said her son was everything.

"Austin was a dream child," Baeza said during the gathering. "He was our first born. All the kids looked up to him. Very charismatic, sports fanatic. He was never too proud to kiss his father in front of people."

It was the idea of Austin's father, Alex Baeza, to hold the candlelight vigil. Baeza's friends and family still hope someone will come forward with answers.

"It seems to be getting harder, now that the reality (is sinking in) that we're never going to see him," Nicolette Baeza said. "You have visions of what happened, but you really don't know the answers," added Austin's father. "It consumes you, and it's consuming me."

The Baezas remembered how their son would always call to keep in touch, making one last phone call to his parents as he walked home the night of the hit-and-run.

"Austin said, 'don't worry about it Pop, I'm just gonna walk home,'" Alex recalled. "I said, 'Austin, please, don't walk. I'm dressed, I can come get you. I don't want you to walk... you're going to get hit by a car.'"

The conversation was one of the last things Alex said to his son, a cruel tragedy that touched everyone at the vigil. As Baeza's friends gathered in prayer, there was peace for a moment. But it quickly vanished from Austin's family, who asked the hit-and-run driver to come forward.

"It eats us up alive... and, please tell us what happened."

Baeza was enrolled at Pitt Community College, studying business and communication. The 20-year-old and his family are from Mooresville, 30 miles north of Charlotte.

Pitt County Sheriff Neil Elks made a personal appearance at the vigil, providing deputies who slowed traffic and protected mourners during the evening. North Carolina Highway Patrol leads the investigation, and can be contacted at (252) 758-5300 with anonymous tips.

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