Ema Cardenas, 14, was struck by a vehicle and killed in the 1600 block of E. University Avenue on April 28, 2022.
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By William Morris, Des Moines Register

The driver who killed an East High School student in a hit-and-run crash this spring will not serve time in prison.

Ema Cardenas, 14, was struck and killed April 28 while crossing East University Avenue as she walked home from East High School. Police located the vehicle involved at a home nearby, but it was not until the following day that the driver, Terra Flipping, 38, turned herself in.

Flipping pleaded guilty in July to leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. When she appeared before Judge Coleman McAllister for sentencing Wednesday, both her attorney and the prosecutor presented the same recommendation: probation.

“It is a horrible, horrible situation, but in considering all things under the law that the court has to consider, and that I believe I have to consider, I believe she’s an appropriate candidate for probation,” prosecutor Jaki Livingston told the judge.

Terra Flipping, 38, pleaded guilty in July to leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death.

Ema’s family disagreed. Her mother, Anna Campos, asked McAllister to send Flipping to prison. 

“If you let her get off with a slap on the hand and give her probation, that will show the community you don’t need a gun to kill someone,” she said. “You just hit them with your car and run away.”

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McAllister said the sentencing was “not an easy decision,” but in the end imposed the recommended two years of probation in lieu of a suspended prison sentence.

Driver faulted for leaving, but not for crash

Flipping did not face any charges related to the crash, only for failing to stay at the scene. Livingston said Wednesday there was no evidence she caused the crash through reckless driving.

“The witness statements are she could not have seen … (Ema) crossing the street because of other traffic in the way,” she said. “There’s not a cause of the collision that can be attributed to the defendant. She was involved in a collision, and a child’s death horrifically resulted.”

After the crash, Flipping pulled over in a nearby parking lot, got out and approached the scene, telling one bystander that she’d been the driver. However, she then left and drove to her home several blocks away without leaving her name, calling 911, or attempting to offer aid to Ema.

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Flipping told the judge Wednesday that she acted out of fear.

“I was afraid, I was scared, I was in shock. I did admit at the scene that I did do it,” she told the judge. “There were people there who were very angry.”

She said she didn’t call 911 or offer aid because others on the scene were already doing so.

“I went to the closest place I knew, three blocks away, which was my house. I was being chased, practically,” she said. “… I did not try to flee the scene with any kind of intent to evade any responsibility.”

Campos, in her statement, accused Flipping’s family of embellishing that account with rumors of children throwing bricks at her car and other threats to her life. 

“One thing I know is if this were reversed, I would have called 911 instead of a lawyer,” she told Flipping. “You left the scene, and I think you could have saved Ema.”

‘To know Ema was to love Ema’

Ema’s family remembered her as the “sweetest person in the world,” and spoke about her love of animals, her dream of designing buildings and her reputation as the best hugger in her family and among her group of friends.

“To know Ema was to love Ema,” her mother said.

Ema would have turned 15 in early May. She died a week before her quinceañera celebration.

Anna Campos and her daughter Nayelli Sandoval, 16, pose for a photo near a makeshift memorial for 14-year-old Ema Cardenas, Campos’ daughter and Nayelli’s sister, on East University Avenue, where the girl was killed in a hit-and-run accident April 28.

Juanita Aguiniga-Gomez, Ema’s cousin, said during the hearing that her family has long been close to Flipping’s family, and has supported the band Flipping and her father perform in professionally.

“The first thing that came to my mind is, we’ve all sat at the same table, we’ve all sat in the same room and danced and partied and had a good time, your family and my family,” she said tearfully. “All you had to do was stay. All you had to do was stay and things would be so different, and I know you know that.”

Although McAllister chose probation over prison for Flipping, he made clear that her conduct both at the crash and in the months since troubled him and described her as simply “going on with her life.”

“That’s something you shouldn’t be proud of. You shouldn’t be proud of any of your actions in this case,” he said. “I’m deeply disappointed in how you behaved and how you responded.”

In the end, the judge said he relied on the pre-sentence investigation report and the attorneys’ recommendations.

“If I was to make the decision based on my heart, I’d want what the family wants, to imprison Ms. Flipping, but that’s not my job,” he said.

Ema’s mother: ‘This is my start of my new life’

Campos said during the hearing that her daughter’s death and the subsequent friction with Flipping’s family has left her family embittered. Afterward, she said she wants to see laws changed to better protect children and pedestrians.

“I honestly prepared for the worst,” she said of the sentencing. “The judge made his decision. Even though I’m not happy about it, he went through the law.”

Ema’s family already has urged city and school officials to improve street safety. In June, the City Council adopted an ordinance expanding where school speed zones can be imposed, including the section of University Avenue where Ema was killed.

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Campos said she’ll continue pushing for changes, and hopes to do so soon as an elected official.

“I’m going to run for school board next year. I want safer streets,” she said. “This is not the first time; it’s not going to be the last time. Laws have to change.”

It’s not the mission she had envisioned for herself, she said, but after her daughter’s death, she knew she needed to speak up.

“I guess this is my start of my new life, of my new purpose, so no other parent has to deal with this,” she said.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at [email protected], 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

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