MOAB, Utah — Ludo Michaud heard a loud noise. Then the car carrying him and his wife stopped.
Michaud and his wife, Esther Nakajjigo, were in Arches National Park. When he looked to his wife in the passenger seat, he saw what he calls, “the worst thing I hope I will ever see.”
Wind caught an unlatched traffic gate and turned it into the path of Michaud and Nakajjigo’s rented Chevy Malibu. The gate pierced the car, decapitating Nakajjigo. She was 25.
The horror of Nakajjigo’s death is one reason Michaud has filed a claim with the National Park Service seeking $270 million. Other reasons for that sum is who Nakajjigo was and what she intended to do.
Nakajjigo was already a celebrity and accomplished humanitarian in her home country of Uganda. She was Uganda’s ambassador for women and girls. At the time of her death, Nakajjigo was in a leadership program in Boulder, Colorado, to learn how to do even more.
“She did quite an incredible amount of initiatives in the short time she had,” Michaud said in an interview with FOX 13.
Nakajjigo was an actress and performer at an early age. Then at age 17, she used her tuition money to start what was called the Princess Diana Health Centre. It was a clinic for teenagers that saw 300 people a day.
The efforts earned Nakajjigo an award from the United Nations, which in turn led to the ambassadorship. Nakajjigo focused on girls who had themselves become mothers through rape or forced marriages.
Nakajjigo told of their plights in a reality show that aired in Uganda. In the show, people do charity work or other acts to benefit the mothers.
Nakajjigo received a scholarship for next-generation leaders at the Watson Institute in Boulder. While there, she met Michaud. He’s originally from France.
The couple married in March 2020.
By late spring, pandemic closures had people itching to get outdoors.
“I really wanted to show her Arches,” Michaud said, “because I know all the parks around Moab because, yeah, it's one of my favorite places in the U.S., if not my favorite place.”
The newlyweds drove into Arches National Park on June 13. They hiked the trail to Delicate Arch, posing for photos there.
Michaud and Nakajjigo ate sandwiches at the location known as The Windows. Then they returned to the car to drive out of the park.
It was a windy day. No one has disputed that the gate just south and west of the visitors center was open and unsecured as the Malibu approached it.
The metal tube gate pivoted clockwise. When the wind caught the gate and the stop sign attached to it, the top rail pierced the car, hit Nakajjigo and stopped on the back of Michaud’s headrest.
Michaud’s attorney, Deborah Chang, of Athea Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles, describes the gate and its clockwise orientation like weapons.
“It is like a metal spear or a lance,” Chang said, “and it is at its most narrow profile pointing towards him in adobe colors like the surrounding area.
“So it'd be like me pointing a piece of paper to you on its most narrow side. You wouldn't able to detect it or see it.”
Michaud, upon seeing the gruesome sight, said he jumped out of the car and ran to the visitor's center for help. A bystander pointed out the car was still in gear and inching forward.
Michaud said he had to get back in the driver's seat to stop the car.
The Grand County Sheriff’s Office arrived to investigate the accident. Its reports make reference to the episode being captured by a camera on the visitors center.
Chang says the Park Service has so far declined to provide her the video.
“I think the video will show in detail how fast this happened,” Chang said.
“Literally a split second,” she added, “giving Ludo absolutely zero chance to avoid it.”
That’s an important point in the claim Chang has filed with the Park Service. Besides failing to latch the gate, the claim contends the gate’s clockwise pivot violated federal standards. The claim also says Michaud has been diagnosed with PTSD.
The claim asks the Park Service for $270 million. Chang said her team calculated what Michaud and his in-laws have suffered and Nakajjigo’s potential lifetime earnings.
“Our experts had computed much higher,” Chang said. “But we took a very conservative approach.”
The claim is a step that has to be taken before Michaud can file a lawsuit. Chang said the Park Service has until sometime in April to answer the claim or try to settle the case without a lawsuit.
Michaud wants the money to care for his late wife’s family and support her causes in Uganda.
“Maybe the most important thing is to make sure what she's done continues beyond her,” Michaud said.
The National Park Service declined to make anyone available for an interview but issued a statement. It read in part:
“First and foremost, our sympathies go out to Esther Nakajjigo's family, friends and those whose lives she impacted both nationally and internationally as a human rights activist.”
After Nakajjigo’s death, the Park Service sent a safety bulletin to parks telling them to inspect and secure similar gates.
The Park Service did not answer FOX 13’s questions about whether anyone was disciplined for failing to latch the gate that killed Nakajjigo.
The gates next to the visitors center at Arches have been changed. The gates now close counterclockwise – toward oncoming traffic so drivers can more easily see them. When FOX 13 visited the site in January, the new gates were latched open with chains and padlocks.
Investigative reporter Nate Carlisle held a live Q&A session on FOX 13's Facebook page after this piece aired. Watch it below: