East High School freshman was on the eve of her Quinceañera when she was killed in hit-and-run

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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 Grace Altenhofen and Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

Dawn Martinez Oropeza said Thursday’s fatal hit-and-run near Des Moines East High School has left the city, especially members of its Latino community, grieving over another preventable tragedy. 

Ema Cardenas, 14, was struck by a vehicle and killed in the 1600 block of E. University Avenue around 3:45 p.m. Thursday while walking home from school. She would have turned 15 in May.

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“Her Quinceañera is next week. They were looking forward to something, this milestone in her life,” said Martinez Oropeza, executive director of Al Éxito and a leader in the Latino community. 

Sgt. Paul Parizek, a spokesperson for the Des Moines Police Department, said in a news release Friday that officers located the suspect vehicle less than a mile from where the accident happened. Hours later Parizek announced the arrest of Terra Jean Flipping, who was allegedly driving the vehicle at the time of the crash and lives at the home where it was found. 

Flipping, 38, has been charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury or death. 

“At this time, there’s no evidence to indicate that this was anything other than an accident,” Parizek told the Des Moines Register. “However, the law requires that you stay, so that’s why (Flipping) was charged. We’ve talked to several witnesses, we’ve recovered some video, but we still need to talk to anybody who saw the actual accident occur.”

Anyone with information regarding the vehicle involved or the driver is encouraged to call the Des Moines Police Department Traffic Unit at 515-323-8370. Anonymous tips may also be submitted.

‘We mourn for her family’

A small memorial has been created near the site of the accident. Red cups spell out “Ema” along a metal fence. People have also left balloons, stuffed animals and a candle.

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“We just mourn for her family,” said Joe Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Des Moines. “Her mother has always been a compassionate member of the community. We want justice — justice must be done.”

Ema was a freshman at Des Moines East High School, according to a statement from Des Moines Public Schools, and before that attended Hiatt Middle School.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of East High School freshman Ema Cardenas,” the statement said. “… Ema has been with us since kindergarten and will be deeply missed by her friends and teachers.”

Grief counseling teams were made available at East and Hiatt, according to the statement. 

“The team is encouraging staff and students who need help processing their feelings to reach out for assistance,” the statement said.

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Martinez Oropeza also said Al Éxito offers mental health resources for those who need it.

In March, a 15-year old Latino teenager was killed in drive-by shooting outside of East. Police have said they believe it was gang related. Two other Latina students were caught in the gunfire but survived. 

“This is another tragedy in the Latino community, and everybody’s heart goes out to the family,” Martinez Oropeza said. “I don’t know why, what was happening. But our kids — are our streets safe?”

‘She was friends with everyone’

Rebecca Sanchez, Ema’s freshman English teacher at East, said Ema showed her pictures of her emerald and gold Quinceañera dress hours before she was killed.  It was glittery, Sanchez said, and it was shipped from Mexico. 

“That girl, her face lit up with excitement,” Sanchez said. “She was really excited to have this coming into womanhood moment. … She would always talk about how her mom and dad were going all out for this moment. She appreciated her parents and everything they were doing for her.”

Ema invited Sanchez to the celebration, and Sanchez planned to attend. 

Sanchez said Ema was sweet with a bubbly personality — a bright student who would lead class discussions.

“She’s so much fun, she’s so loving,” the teacher said. “Her spirit, she just brightened up a room. I’ve never seen that girl frown. She would come into my classroom full of smiles.

“She was friends with everyone, that was my favorite part of her”

It’s been a tough year for the East community, Sanchez said. 

“We’ve had a lot of loss this year,” Sanchez said. “They’re so young — that’s the worst part.”

Des Moines Register reporter Sarah LeBlanc contributed to this report. 

Crashes involving pedestrians

According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, there have been 100 crashes involving pedestrians so far in 2022, including 27 in Polk County. Out of the statewide crashes so far, 52 minor injuries, 18 serious injuries and five fatalities were reported. 

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