Mom advocates for safer streets after daughter’s hit-and-run death near East High

Anna Campos y su hija Nayelli Sandoval, de 16 años, posan para una foto cerca de un monumento improvisado para Ema Cárdenas, de 14 años, hija de Campos y hermana de Nayelli, en East University Avenue, donde la niña murió en un accidente de atropello y fuga. 28 de abril. Meg McLaughlin/The Register

By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

Nayelli Sandoval said she and her sister Ema Cardenas were opposites in many ways, which is likely what made their bond so strong.

Ema died April 28 — nine days before her 15th birthday. She was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing the 1600 block of East University Ave. after classes at East High School, where she was a freshman.


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

Nayelli, 16, called herself tough and not terribly quick to forgive. But her younger sister, she said, was sensitive and didn’t hold a grudge. Nayelli said she defended Ema from bullies, and that when she needed it, Ema would offer comfort as they drove around the city, talking and listening to songs by their favorite artists, including Bad Bunny, Eslabon Armado, Kali Uchis, Khalid and Russ.

Nayelli has widely shared her sister’s story on the internet in the weeks since the accident, often including the phrase “defend Ema” while advocating for harsher penalties for those charged in fatal hit-and-run accidents.


“If Ema were a mom, and this would be her child, she would forgive,” she said. “But I defended Ema when she was here. So I’m going to defend her in death.”

From left, Nayelli Sandoval, Ema Cardenas

Anna Campos, the girls’ mother, falls somewhere between her two daughters, saying at a May 2 vigil for Ema that she was “still not 100% forgiving,” but asking for prayers for Flipping.

Since then, she has turned her energy to examining the safety situation around Des Moines schools — investigating road usage, traffic signals, markings, crosswalks and sidewalks.


Describing herself as being in “detective mode,” she said she’s witnessed people driving faster than the posted 35 mph speed limit on the portion of University where her daughter was killed, and that there are no traffic controls to slow or stop traffic.

She is now advocating for safer and more walkable streets near schools.

“We don’t want this to ever happen again,” Campos, 41, said.

On Monday, she attended a Des Moines City Council meeting. While she was unable to get on the list of speakers, her friend, Marla Fowler, spoke on her behalf.

“Our children are being hurt and killed in school zones and it should not take these serious incidents for us to take action to ensure every child is safe,” Fowler said.

She requested the council implement numerous traffic safety changes, including reducing speed limits in school zones to 20 mph; extending school zones; implementing crossing guards and more lighted crosswalks; creating speed bumps in school zones; and stiffer penalties for speeding in school zones, for distracted drivers, and for those who commit hit-and-runs.

“I challenge each of you to walk from East High School to the place on East University where Ema was hit during the after school hours so you can see for yourselves how dangerous it is for the East and Hiatt students,” Fowler told the council members.

City Council member Linda Westergaard agreed, acknowledging the lack of traffic signage and excessive speed on East University Avenue and calling on the rest of the council and the city manager’s office to make traffic safety near schools its highest priority.

“Move it to the top of the list if we need to,” Westergaard said. “If you drive in the area, it’s truly a speedway. There’s no way to safely cross the street — we’ve got kids at East that are just literally a block away, Hiatt middle school that is right across the street.

“We owe it to our residents and the students that go to that school that we get working on this immediately so what happened never happens again … Let’s get working with (the Department of Transportation), and let’s find the funds.”

City Council member Carl Voss also acknowledged that many schools in Des Moines are along high-traffic corridors and called for an emphasis on traffic safety measures along roads near schools.

Pedestrian deaths rising in Iowa

In Iowa, pedestrian traffic deaths are increasing. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, there were 24 pedestrian deaths in 2019 statewide. That number increased to 29 in 2020, and 32 in 2021. So far in 2022, the state has had eight pedestrian deaths.

In Des Moines, there were four pedestrian deaths in 2019, five in 2020, and three in 2021. So far in 2022, the city has recorded two.

Both statewide and in Des Moines, the majority of pedestrian fatalities occur on roadways where no traffic controls are present, according to the DOT’s data.

Remembering Ema Cardenas


The night before Ema was killed, she tried on her elegant, glittery, emerald and gold quinceañera dress that she designed herself and had shipped from Mexico.

Campos fluffed the gown’s petticoat skirt so it would look like Cinderella’s, she said.

“She looked beautiful,” Campos said. The last time she saw her daughter was the next morning, right before Ema and Nayelli left for school. Ema was supposed to celebrate her quinceañera with loved ones on May 7, Campos said. Instead, she was buried the day before.

Ema Cardenas, 14, was killed in a hit-and-run accident on April 28, 2022 in Des Moines. She is remembered as gentle, kind, forgiving, and “simply loved.”

At the funeral, Campos said, people kept telling her how strong she is.

“When you become a mom, you will know where that strength comes from — it’s an instinct,” she said Friday as she stood by the memorial for Ema at the intersection of East Seventh Street and East University Avenue, near the spot of the accident.

There, red plastic cups pushed through holes in a chain-link fence spelled out “Ema” and showed the shape of a heart. Loved ones left flowers, crosses, candles, photographs and stuffed animals.

“This is the only joy that I have — seeing how much she’s touched people,” Campos said of the memorial.

A makeshift memorial for 14-year-old Emma Cardenas near the section of East University Avenue in Des Moines where she was killed in a hit-and-run accident April 28.

Despite that, Campos has only visited the memorial three times. Nayelli hasn’t returned to school. And the girls’ mother avoids driving on East University Avenue as much as she can.

“Every time I’m here, on this road, I’m thinking how? How did it happen? I have the image of Ema in my head,” Campos said.

Ema was the easiest out of her five kids, Campos said — she was sometimes shy and always gentle, kind and humble. And she’d do anything to help others.

Campos said Ema was her travel buddy.

“When it was mom and Ema time, we would just talk about life. Where she wants to travel, what she wants to do in life,” Campos said.

Ema, who loved animals — especially pigs and other farm animals — wanted to be a veterinarian and live on a farm.

Campos and Nayelli miss Ema’s laugh, her hugs, her big appetite. Nayelli misses her sister’s waffles — “which were terrible and soggy, by the way,” she said — and the way they’d fight like typical sisters and make up five minutes later.

“I still say her name. At home I’m still yelling, ‘Hey Ema,’ and I have to catch myself,” Campos said.

Police: Flipping ‘well aware of what happened’

According to a search warrant application for Flipping’s home, phone and vehicle, witnesses told police on the scene they saw Flipping pull into a parking lot near the intersection of East 17th Street and East University Avenue right after allegedly hitting Ema with her vehicle, a Ford Edge.

There, witnesses told police that Flipping exited her vehicle and allegedly said out loud that she “struck a person” before getting back into the SUV and driving away, according to the application.

When police arrived, witnesses told them they recognized Flipping because she lives in the area but were not able to immediately provide her name, according to the warrant. It said one witness later recalled Flipping’s name and provided that information and photos from Flipping’s Facebook page to police.


On April 29, Sgt. Paul Parizek, a spokesperson for the Des Moines Police Department, said in a news release that officers had located Flipping’s car less than a mile from where the accident happened. Hours later Parizek announced the arrest of Flipping, who lives at the home where the car was found.

“There is no evidence that the circumstances leading up to the crash were anything more than an accident,” Parizek said, but added, “Evidence does show that Flipping was well aware of what happened and voluntarily left the scene without providing aid to Cardenas.”

According to the search warrant application, Flipping turned herself in after police visited her home and found her car with damage around the driver side’s headlight.

“The damage appeared to be fresh and was consistent with a pedestrian strike,” wrote Des Moines police officer Bryan Wickett.

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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