Madera teen's death raises BMW safety concerns

FRESNO, Calif.

We know where /*Graciela Martinez*/ spent the final moments of her short life. The 14-year-old died in September inside her family's 1997 BMW, in the parking lot outside Madera South High School.

"Right after school we found her, my sister found her," said Graciela's brother, Oscar. "She was all dried and white."

Madera police investigators tell ABC30 Graciela definitely tried to get free of the locked car. She removed some clothing and there are signs she struggled to break out. What we don't know is what -- if anything -- ran through her mind as dehydration and heat exhaustion set in. But Tracy Coffey says she knows the feeling.

Tracy Coffey: "It was very hot, very hot. Very claustrophobic."

Coffey also owns a BMW 3 series, a '94, in which she's been trapped twice. Most recently her 10-year-old daughter Michelle got them all stuck on the way home from school.

Tracy Coffey: "She jumped out, she put the keys in the car, just wasn't thinking, thinking about her backpack and she jumped back in the passenger side and we all went 'no' and, she shut the door and we were completely locked in."

Reporter Corin Hoggard: "I put myself in the same position in this 1994 BMW 3 series and realized just how fruitless it is to try and get out. Once you're locked in, these locks, they will not open. The sunroof is stuck. You're not even able to honk the horn."

Tracy Coffey: "They don't even have an emergency trunk release, so anybody that's in this car, they're in a death trap."

Coffey called a relative to get her family out, but she and two children were trapped in the car for almost 45 minutes.

Graciela Martinez had no phone, and her family knew nothing about the BMW's feature that won't let you out of a car locked from the outside.

When ABC30 asked BMW to address the issue, a company spokesman said: "BMW door locks from the early '80s through the late '90s had a feature called 'double-locking.' This was an anti-theft feature designed to prevent a thief from gaining entry to a BMW by breaking a window and opening the door using the inside door release."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than a dozen complaints about the locking system, including one other death the owners blamed on the locks. But neither the car company nor the government have ever ordered a recall.

Newer BMW models will open from the inside. But mechanics tell me the old three series was a ticking time bomb.

Kenny Meddock with European Automotive Service: "I knew this would happen to the cars and it didn't surprise me when I saw it, but it's heartbreaking."

BMW warned of the locking system in its owner's manual, saying once the locking system is engaged, "The doors positively cannot be opened either from inside or from outside."

But the Martinez family was the seventh owners of their car and the manual was long gone. They're now pursuing legal action against BMW. ABC30 Legal Analyst Tony Capozzi says the case will likely revolve around two key issues.

Tony Capozzi: "Establish that 1) BMW knew: it's in the manual, they knew. And you have to establish that this system they set up is inherently dangerous, really, it's a death trap."

Coffey knows the danger and now keeps a tire iron in the car, just in case. She'd rather just have BMW undo the locking feature.

Tracy Coffey: "I don't need a fancy safety theft device in the car. It's not worth it. There's no car out there on the face of this earth that should have this kind of a problem."

But the damage to the Martinez family can never be undone. They're left asking why.

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