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L.A.'s Bloody Hit-and-Run Epidemic 

The city ignores a crisis of car-as-weapon crime in the streets

Thursday, Dec 6 2012
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The last thing Marie Hardwick remembers from the morning of Sunday, March 25, as she legally crossed Wilshire Boulevard is glancing through the windshield of a shiny black sports car — into the expressionless eyes of a man who, milliseconds later, shot his sedan like a bullet into her delicate frame, leaving Hardwick crumpled and broken in the crosswalk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The pretty young Eastside jewelry artist had just emerged from a LACMA screening of Christian Marclay's experimental and striking 24-hour film The Clock, described by The New Yorker as "a seamless transition between reality and fantasy." Right around the 2 a.m. mark, when Hardwick stepped out, the film, made of hundreds and hundreds of snippets from other films, had begun to morph into a chaotic, sleep-deprived nightmare world.

Those horrors spilled out into the intersection of Spaulding Avenue and Wilshire, where, as a "walk" signal flashed overhead, a black BMW hit Hardwick so hard that her bottom row of teeth was knocked out, her jaw snapped apart like a puppet's, both her kneecaps shattered and the bones in both legs broke into pieces. One femur was split in five places.

click to flip through (8) COURTESY OF MARIE HARDWICK - X-rays show the injuries of hit-and-run victim Marie Hardwick.
  • COURTESY OF MARIE HARDWICK
  • X-rays show the injuries of hit-and-run victim Marie Hardwick.
 

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Then the driver zipped away — another in Los Angeles' epidemic of bloody hit-and-run crimes — leaving behind a telltale piece of debris: his side-view mirror.

Today, after extensive treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and home care at her grandmother's house — where she was attached to a feeding tube — Hardwick has made significant progress. She's able to walk, although with great difficulty, but she'll probably never run again. Her jaw has been rebuilt, although she can't bite into food with her reconstructed front teeth. And she cannot stand heavily air-conditioned rooms. The cold air turns her 12 internal metal knee-screws into painful icicles.

Because her legs were maimed, she could no longer climb the stairs to her Boyle Heights apartment on the city's Eastside. So at age 25, she had to move back in with her parents. Careerwise, the accident has slowed her down "tremendously," Hardwick explains. Her fragile legs can't handle the urban terrain of the downtown L.A. jewelry district, where the talented jewelry maker buys her supplies.

Hardwick has shelled out some $10,000 for medical bills, and expects that to double. Add to that the future cost of a car she hopes to equip with special seats to accommodate her injuries.

"Everything changes," she says. "It's not just medical bills. You have to change your entire life."

Hardwick is the survivor of an almost never officially discussed, little-researched epidemic that has a terrible grip on Los Angeles — a hit-and-run crime wave that has marched on for years while mayors, chiefs of police and other city leaders ignore it or remain ignorant of it.

There is no LAPD task force or organized city effort to address the problem, yet the numbers are mind-boggling. About 20,000 hit-and-run crashes, from fender benders to multiple fatalities, are recorded by the Los Angeles Police Department each year.

That's huge, even in a city of 3.8 million people. In the United States, 11 percent of vehicle collisions are hit-and-runs. But in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly has learned, an incredible 48 percent of crashes were hit-and-runs in 2009, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. According to data collected by the state, some 4,000 hit-and-run crashes a year inside L.A. city limits, including cases handled by LAPD, California Highway Patrol and the L.A. County Sheriff, resulted in injury and/or death. Of those, according to a federal study, about 100 pedestrians died; the number of motorists and bicyclists who die would push that toll even higher.

"It's like a war zone out there," says Jeri Dye Lynch of Van Nuys, whose son, 16-year-old cross-country star Conor Lynch, was killed by a hit-and-run driver two years ago while jogging in the San Fernando Valley. "But there's nobody there to help. They just accept it as part of living in an urban environment."

As punishment for Conor Lynch's death, the 18-year-old hit-and-run driver did no jail time, largely because she eventually turned herself in.

Hardwick, a soft-spoken U.K. native with a freckled nose and long, dark, hippie hair, can describe her attacker in surprising detail: She vividly recalls that he was very fit, that his coloring strongly suggested a mixed-race man, and that his bone structure and skin put him between 28 and 32 years old.

"If I saw an image of him, I would identify him right away," Hardwick says.

Yet the Los Angeles Police Department's West Traffic division, which handled the case, never interviewed Hardwick, an eyewitness victim of a felony. That was not the only misstep in a botched investigation of a crime that drew media coverage but never drew any interest from LAPD brass.

Corey Marsh, a Disney executive driving his car on Wilshire Boulevard that March night, was right behind the hit-and-run driver. He tells the Weekly that the "police seemed discombobulated" during their on-site sweep. After Marsh pulled over to see if he could help, LAPD officers who responded failed to perform the most basic evidence-gathering, he says.

Among other things, he says they did not collect the side-view mirror that cracked off of the suspect's car as the driver ran Hardwick down. (Would the mirror have given up the driver's fingerprints or DNA? Nobody will ever know.) And, Marsh says, the LAPD officers brushed off witnesses who described the suspect's car as a black BMW with no license plates, and who thought they knew the getaway route the BMW had taken.

West Traffic Detective Brent Johnson could not comment to the Weekly regarding these allegations. That's because two regular patrol officers responded to the bloody scene outside LACMA — not trained investigators like Johnson, from the West Traffic division. Johnson didn't receive those officers' report until at least three days after the harrowing hit-and-run. After that, he recalls, another "day or two" passed before LAPD released a bulletin asking the public to keep an eye out — for a black BMW with front-end damage.

The man whom witnesses saw strike down Marie Hardwick was long gone and has not been found.

The first few days after a hit-and-run are the most crucial. "Scenes can change very quickly," says Santa Monica Police Department officer Jason Olson, one of two traffic investigators in the beachside city, so it's important to "get to the scene as quickly as possible and make sense of what's there." Hit-and-runners often patch up incriminating car damage ASAP. "If you have a brother or friend with a body shop, that thing can be fixed almost overnight," Olson says. If a hit-and-run occurs at night (which they most often do), SMPD tries to put out a bulletin by 8 a.m. the next day.

Olson concedes that Santa Monica's investigators seldom catch hit-and-run drivers: "Until you actually get something — a name, a license plate, a cellphone, an ID — you're just relying on the person or the person's family to come forward."

Three weeks after Marie Hardwick was struck outside LACMA, Detective Johnson called off the search for the young, possibly mixed-race male suspect driving the BMW.

"As it stands, this will remain unsolved until someone either turns in the suspect or the suspect turns himself in," he wrote in an email to Hardwick's stepmother. In that email, he also informed the family, "The police officers that responded to this incident did not collect any of the debris. ... I cannot explain why the pieces were not collected."

About a month after L.A. Weekly began probing LAPD's investigation of her case, Hardwick says, LAPD agreed to draw up a composite sketch of the suspect — apparently in reaction to media interest. Nobody at LAPD would confirm this. LAPD Captain Rosa Moreno, commanding officer for the West Traffic division, never responded to the Weekly's requests for comment. Despite weeks of effort by the newspaper, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck refused to grant any time to the Weekly to discuss the city's hit-and-run crisis, even in general terms.

Over the summer Beck announced that violent crime in Los Angeles is at an all-time low, making it "the safest big city in America." But, he failed to say, not if you view a car as a weapon.

"It wasn't so long ago that this city was known as the murder capital of the United States," Beck beamed as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looked on approvingly. "That is not true anymore."

But this is a different kind of killing and mayhem playing out in Los Angeles, and the Beck administration and Villaraigosa administration apparently are not paying attention to it — or putting many resources into it.

Since 2001, the city's hit-and-run rate has hovered at or near 50 percent of all vehicle crashes. (LAPD could not provide the Weekly with any stats before 2001.)

LAPD traffic officers tell the Weekly that each of L.A.'s four huge traffic divisions is assigned approximately 12 traffic investigators. That means that each of the 50 or so police officers working citywide must take on perhaps 400 hit-and-run investigations per year, from serious felonies to minor misdemeanors, in addition to other traffic crimes, including DUIs and crashes involving negligence.

Although Beck does not discuss L.A.'s hit-and-run epidemic publicly, he alluded to it when he argued last February that hit-and-runs could be dramatically reduced by granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, who the chief believes flee the scene out of fear they'll be deported.

When the Weekly submitted a formal request to speak with Beck about hit-and-runs, media relations officer Richard French responded: "Chief Beck will not speak to your issue."

Commander Andrew Smith, Beck's head of communications, said, "Of course it's something we're concerned with." But overall, he says, "crimes against a person," such as homicides and sexual assaults, are a higher priority.

Smith later explained that Beck created a Multidisciplinary Collision Investigation Team (MCIT) late in 2011, which is available to traffic investigators in the immediate aftermath of major collisions. Among other things, Smith says, the team of specialized detectives can be called to the scene by cops who are dealing with an especially severe or complex hit-and-run.

But the West Traffic division did not tap the MCIT when Hardwick was left bleeding in the crosswalk at the county museum. In fact, the multidisciplinary team is focused on something altogether different: It was actually created to protect the city from lawsuits after Los Angeles police crash into citizens or citizens' vehicles with their patrol cars.

LAPD's Josephine Mapson, a top traffic detective at Central division, tells the Weekly that she has no access to the special collision-investigation team. "That's only for investigations involving city property," she says matter-of-factly.

As it turns out, Beck and his aides — and by extension, Mayor Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council — are in the dark about the scope of the hit-and-run crime wave in L.A., and particularly its terrible human toll.

Los Angeles' law enforcement and elected leaders do not know how many injuries and fatalities occur among the city's 20,000 annual hit-and-runs — a lack of knowledge some would argue is akin to not knowing how many of the city's reported shootings result in injury or death.

When the Weekly requested data on how many people are killed and injured by hit-and-run drivers each year, LAPD Discovery Section analyst Greg Toyama said that fulfilling such an "extensive" request could take weeks and would require the Weekly to write a check in an unknown amount to cover the research cost. Toyama, whose Discovery Section handles record keeping, could not give a ballpark figure for how much it would cost to extract the buried information.

Weeks later, when LAPD finally responded to this paper's request for the number of people hurt and killed by hit-and-runs, Toyama said there were "errors" in the data and that the police department would have to "redo" its number-crunching process.

Another Weekly request for basic information — specifically, the number of hit-and-run arrests made in L.A. since 2010 — took three weeks for the LAPD Discovery Section to process. When LAPD finally produced the data, they were incomplete and did not reveal how many arrests had been made during the time period.

In fact, it appears that the best data on the massive scope of L.A. felony hit-and-runs — "felony" generally meaning somebody was seriously injured or killed — were dug up not by city leaders or law enforcement but by well-known bicycling advocate Alex Thompson, founder of the now-defunct website Bikeside L.A.

The state numbers obtained by Thompson showed that some 4,000 felony hit-and-runs occur yearly in the city of L.A., including cases from LAPD, CHP and the sheriff.

Online information that might shed light on the crisis was similarly published by a private party: Newport Beach personal injury lawyer Brian Chase's law firm, Bisnar | Chase, which published statistics revealing that L.A.'s hit-and-run contagion is two to three times worse than in the big, nearby suburbs of Burbank, Glendale and Santa Clarita, whose own hit-and-run rates, in turn, are well above the 11 percent U.S. norm.

If media coverage is any guide, LAPD's unknown success rate in arresting hit-and run suspects is bleak. Of numerous hit-and-run stories the Weekly has published in the past two years — almost all involving severe injuries or deaths — only one driver, Porter Ranch resident Dominique Rush, 23, suspected killer of Chatsworth High School soccer star German Romero, was reported as having been found and arrested by police without coming forward on his or her own.

Amid this dearth of information from City Hall and LAPD, the Los Angeles bicycling community has tried to keep tabs on what's going on, mainly because urban bicyclists are in constant danger of being struck by cars. Local news blog Biking in L.A. noted the rarity of that one reported LAPD arrest that nabbed Rush, speculating that "pressure from the cycling community" motivated Valley Traffic investigators to find and arrest her.

Bedridden for two months after she was struck down in front of LACMA — during which time her mouth was rebuilt and her shattered legs were bolted back together — Hardwick began tracking local hit-and-run reports that appeared in the news.

"It seemed like there were at least 12 [reports] — all of which led to death or injuries that actually impaired people from doing things," she remembers.

Because she is one of those who survived, Hardwick plays down her own terrible experience. "I'm in that situation, too, but I'm on the very light scale of it," Hardwick says. "And mine was so publicized. It's so sad when you hear about people in East L.A. ... and they get hit, and nothing really gets said or done about it."

The death of pedestrian Lina Andrade, who left behind a 92-year-old mother, barely attracted news attention during Thanksgiving week. Yet the crime in working-class, heavily Latino Westlake was a chilling one: The suspect circled the block, his windshield badly caved in from striking and throwing Andrade 70 feet in the air. Police say eyewitnesses in the dense residential area saw the heavily damaged car re-approach the scene, but they were so intent on helping the dying woman — and expecting the driver to emerge from his car — that nobody got his plate number or even the car's make or model. Then the killer sped off.

Detective Johnson says the investigation into Marie Hardwick's hit-and-run might have played out differently, with a far more serious LAPD investigation — if she had died. "If [Hardwick's maiming] had been a fatality, there would have been automatic notification over to the West Traffic division," Johnson says. LAPD spokesman Smith confirms that finding hit-and-run killers is "absolutely" a higher priority than finding those who flee scenes where the victim or victims survive. But, as Johnson explains, even when a driver kills somebody and flees in L.A., "There are times when there's nobody from Traffic available" to respond quickly. "It just depends on if units are tied up or not."

Thompson, the former blogger at Bikeside L.A., tried to start a campaign in 2010 called "Life Before License," seeking harsher sentences for hit-and-run drivers. He launched the campaign after a young drunk driver almost killed professional bike racer Louis "Birdman" Deliz on Sunset Boulevard — shattering his face, much like what happened to Hardwick, and leaving Deliz with a limp for life.

Although the hit was so hard that Deliz's "teeth were embedded" in the 18-year-old driver's car, according to Thompson, the culprit — caught by police as she fled the scene — was sentenced to just 90 days of community service.

"People don't care about other people, and there are no consequences for that," Thompson tells the Weekly. "I saw people that would literally maim people, and then [argue to the judge] that it was a hardship to not be able to drive. It's, like, 'Take the bus!' "

Given the statistics Thompson gathered — showing that thousands of victims are seriously hurt or killed by hit-and-run drivers in Los Angeles each year — he had reason to believe his campaign might take off. Instead, it quickly petered out.

"People just can't accept that kind of figure, because it's so staggering. They think of collisions as a fact of life," Thompson says.

U.S. scholars Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway wrote in a 1994 report on the psychology underlying hit-and-runs that two main factors are involved: a slightly antisocial personality or disposition that's greatly amplified by the presence of alcohol; and the belief, after a split-second cost-benefit analysis, that the benefits of fleeing the scene outweigh those of sticking around.

Marie Hardwick has come to believe that "people don't stop to think about other people very often in L.A. Especially when someone's [in] a car — it's like they're in an ego bubble. The power that they have, and that little bit of anger that they have, all goes into the wheel. It's like they feel like they're hidden behind it."

Damien Newton, a traffic-safety advocate who runs popular website L.A. Streetsblog, reasons: "When that initial crash happens, everything's so expensive and people are so disconnected that the thought is, 'Oh my God, how is this going to impact me?' This is the way too many people think right now."

In June, beloved South L.A. locksmith Jimmie Thomas, 78, was killed by a dark SUV while crossing Western Avenue at high noon. Despite many onlookers and a $50,000 city reward, his killer has never been found. "You took my husband from me. You took my life,'' his wife, Peggy Thomas, told City News Service, addressing the hit-and-run driver. "You don't know the pain and the sorrow that I feel.''

In another tragic crash in September, two young teens walking across Vanowen Street in the San Fernando Valley on their way to Mulholland Middle School were plowed down by a red pickup, left bloody and unconscious in the crosswalk. After being rushed to the hospital in serious condition, both survived — but again, the suspect who left them for dead was never found.

L.A. attorney Brian Chase, who often represents hit-and-run victims, sees the epidemic not solely as a law-enforcement problem but also a community problem that's fed by everything from "disconnected" drivers to too many crash witnesses "who are reluctant to get involved in things."

"Now I get Nixle alerts for hit-and-runs," says bereaved mother Jeri Dye Lynch, referring to a free, nationwide text-messaging service that sends local police alerts to cellphones. "At the beginning, we tried at the Conor Lynch Foundation to send cards to all the families — it seemed like every single day there was another hit-and-run."

Streetsblog's Newton suggests a deepening problem that has yet to jolt Los Angeles residents, political leaders or law enforcement into acting. "When you see repeated stories of this on the news — this hit-and-run happened here, this hit-and-run happened here — it becomes a drumbeat in people's head, like this kind of thing just happens here," Newton says. "And you don't get into, 'What can we do as a city, as a police department, to fix this?' "

Ron Hoffman, an L.A. criminal defense attorney who has handled traffic cases for 30 years, believes that serious-injury hit-and-runs have "become a bigger problem" in recent years because many drivers, some of whom can barely make rent, panic rather than stopping to help those they've struck. DUI charges, in particular, can cost thousands of dollars in fines and attorney fees, and those found guilty often lose their jobs.

Hoffman surmises, "People drink a lot more in a tough economy, because they're more stressed out." He also theorizes, "Perhaps they lost their auto insurance, or are unable to meet their financial obligations."

L.A. Deputy District Attorney Steve Katz says "many — maybe most" hit-and-run drivers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But when a suspect flees the scene, he says, they drive off with most of the evidence — the badly dented car, their ID and their blood-alcohol content. "We can't just make assumptions" but must have hard proof to pursue a felony conviction.

Katz was a prosecutor in the infamous hit-and-run case of Australian businessman and Girls Gone Wild distributor Ryan Bowman, who in the winter of 2010 struck and killed 21-year-old West Hollywood resident Lauren Freeman as she crossed Sunset Boulevard just before midnight.

Witnesses attested that Bowman's recklessly speeding gray Bentley — which he then abandoned, sans front bumper — threw the young, blond pedestrian 50 feet in the air.

"Like a piece of trash on the road," Freeman's father raged in court. "My little girl!"

But it could be argued that things worked out well for Bowman, specifically because he chose to flee the scene of his vehicular homicide.

Prosecutors couldn't prove he'd been drunk or grossly negligent before leaving Freeman to die, for one thing. It was too late to test Bowman for drugs or alcohol by the time he turned himself in to L.A. County Sheriff's investigators. So DA Steve Cooley's team worked out a plea deal: Bowman would spend just one year (six months with good behavior) at the comfortable Seal Beach Police Detention Center. Even that was an unusually harsh sentence for a single felony violation of the California Vehicle Code — likely thanks to the emotional courtroom testimony provided by Lauren Freeman's grieving parents.

Bowman was forced to look the Freeman family in the eye and acknowledge the tremendous loss and pain he'd caused. Most Los Angeles–area drivers who flee the scene never have to deal with it again. "Unless there's a good possibility to follow up, like an eyewitness account or a license plate or videotape from a nearby business, there's really not much we can do," says LAPD Cmdr. Smith.

Although Villaraigosa and Beck take credit for low levels of violent crime that today match those of the idyllic 1950s, it seems impossible that half of all auto crashes in 1956 were hit-and-runs, or that thousands of people were being left injured, or worse, on the city's streets each year.

The current crop of City Hall politicians have backed major and costly efforts to fight gang crime and graffiti but have no visible campaign aimed at tackling what appears to be a citywide morality crisis and crime wave. Marie Hardwick hopes that car-on-pedestrian crimes like the one she endured get moved up on Beck and Villaraigosa's list of public safety priorities.

"Even though I didn't die, I think this is a key case just to show how unimportant the hit-and-run department is in the LAPD," she says.

But it's not Hardwick's job to make Beck, Villaraigosa, the City Council or LAPD get serious about it. She's busy working through long, painful hours of physical therapy and picking up the pieces of her life.

------------

A few of L.A.'s hit-and-run victims

Thomas Price, 22, an aspiring firefighter, struck and killed Dec. 2 in Reseda.

Lina Andrade, 62, killed Nov. 18 in Westlake when a driver blew through a stop sign. Left a 92-year-old mother. 

Miguel Mendez, 18, special needs student at Banneker Special Education Center, killed Nov. 17 by a minivan.

Amos Romasoc, 63, father of three, killed in Hollywood on Sept. 10 at a bus stop by a 2010 Chrysler Sebring.

Andrew Lopez, 17, a high school senior, killed by a U-turning car as he skateboarded to soccer practice Aug. 23 at Budlong Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. 

Doug Harden, 42, ran across Olympic Boulevard in Mid-City on July 14 to check his lottery tickets and was struck by a black SUV trying to pass other cars.

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