On May 27, 2010, reading the newspaper in his West Hollywood apartment, Marvin Rinnig was disturbed to find a description of what sounded like his neighbor's beat-up old Volkswagen. The yellow Beetle with a black convertible top was being implicated in a hit-and-run. Officials said that a week earlier, the VW's driver mowed down a young valet doing his job on La Cienega Boulevard in L.A., then sped off.
Benjamin Zelman, then 22, was working for United Parking Company at Koi restaurant, and was struck while crossing the street near Melrose Avenue. In security footage later released publicly, Zelman's body is shown being tossed into the air and landing on the ground like a rag doll.
Zelman suffered critical brain injuries and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in a coma. His devastated mother feared that his injuries would be long-term, telling the media that he was struggling to wake up.
Since that day, details about Zelman's condition have been few. Cedars-Sinai can't release information about his case due to federal regulations; no one in his family would speak to L.A. Weekly about his recovery; and nothing further has been written about him in the media.
A Facebook page registered to a Ben Zelman in Santa Monica suggests he's recovered steadily, indicating that this year he graduated from Santa Monica College, the same school he attended prior to the accident, and showing a photo of him smiling and looking alert. The accuracy of the page hasn't been confirmed by family or friends.
Back in 2010, though, immediately following the horrific hit-and-run, Zelman's family was extremely public with its story. His mother offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide information leading to the driver's conviction. The City of Los Angeles offered another $25,000.
The day Rinnig read the newspaper article, the Zelmans and the Los Angeles Police Department held a press conference featuring City Councilman Paul Koretz, at which they begged the public to help find the culprit. Koretz declared, “If you're behind the wheel and an accident happens, no matter what's running through your head, you stop and see if there's anything you can do to help or get help for the person who is lying there with life and limb at stake.”
Rinnig realized that he had a role to play.
“There's a guy at the top of the street who has an old yellow Volkswagen,” he tells the Weekly of the events that unfolded. “I see it every day.”
So he called LAPD, telling them that he believed he knew the whereabouts of the suspect. As he waited for the detective to show, Rinnig — who has worked as a freelance photographer for more than 30 years — grabbed his camera, walked over to his neighbor's house and stood in the rain for four hours waiting for him to come out.
“As soon as the detective starts going into the building, the suspect comes peeling out of the garage in the Volkswagen,” Rinnig says. “I yelled at the detective, 'There he goes!' ”
The driver was Michael Goldman, 74, caught a short time later by police at a nearby Pavilion's. Police say Goldman admitted to the crime. He later was found guilty of a felony hit-and-run but, as in many such cases in L.A. Superior Court, was handed a light sentence of three years' probation. As the Weekly reported in its Dec. 6 cover story, “Hit-and-Run Epidemic,” L.A. is in the throes of a crisis, with 48 percent of all vehicle crashes involving a driver who flees. Those convicted are rarely sent to jail.
Detective Zachary Hutchings, who arrested Goldman, says that without Rinnig's tip, LAPD never would have found him.
“He was the sole person that helped me locate Mr. Goldman,” Hutchings says. “He did the right thing.”
And the city did indeed recently pay Rinnig the $25,000, but the Zelman family never came through, Rinnig says.
“I'll leave a message on their machine and they never call me back,” Rinnig says. “They just totally ignore me.”
After Zelman was found near death on the pavement on May 19, 2010, his family immediately launched a campaign to find the driver. They set up a blog and a Twitter account to track the progress of LAPD's investigation, and sought the public's help. At the May 27 press conference, Benjamin's mother, Gerta Zelman, spoke tearfully, saying, “He sustained significant injuries, and somebody would not stop and help out? It's human decency.”
Rinnig heard the call, but now the West Hollywood resident —— whose income is derived solely from his freelance photography — faces skyrocketing rent in the neighborhood where he has lived for decades, and the reward seems out of his grasp.
According to Hutchings, city officials generally stay out of things when a private party offers a reward to the tipster who helps convict a suspect.
“We can't force the family to pay,” Hutchings says. Rinnig “could sue them civilly, but that's the only recourse.”
Koretz, once front and center before the cameras, decrying the hit-and-run tragedy, now is avoiding media exposure. Paul Neuman, an aide to Koretz, says the councilman and his staff don't have the full details of the dispute, so there's little that they can — or would — do to step in. “It would not be appropriate for us to do something when all the information hasn't been shared with us,” Neuman says.
This response baffles Rinnig, who has in fact reached out to Koretz's aides. According to Rinnig, “Every time I talk to one of the assistants, I say, 'The Zelmans have totally refused to talk to me.' ”
Both Gerta Zelman and Peter Zelman, Benjamin's father, did not respond to L.A. Weekly's repeated phone calls.
Roseanna Zelman Ponto, Benjamin's sister, who appeared at the 2010 press conference, told the paper she could only comment, “My parents are the ones who are dealing with it.”
In other media stories, the Zelmans claimed that they hadn't yet paid out the reward because they face $3 million in medical bills. But according to California law, several other parties would be responsible for the payments before the family.
Attorney Gregory Caplan, who specializes in hit-and-runs, notes that the guilty driver often is required to pay restitution that covers medical bills.
Caplan says, “The person who's convicted would be responsible for paying their restitution to make the person whole again.”
But attorney Ellyn S. Garofalo, who represents hit-and-run driver Goldman, says simply, “There is no order of restitution now in place” from the court. Such an order normally would be sought early on by the district attorney, but court documents show that the last restitution hearing was on Feb. 23, 2011, and the judge did not order Goldman to pay the family's bills.
Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the DA, says that's because the Zelman family itself “never presented anything to ask for restitution” such as medical bills and other required documents.
Zelman also is likely to be covered by workers' compensation because he was at work when struck down, says Zachary H. Sacks, an veteran attorney who defends workers' compensation claims. If that's the case, Sacks says, “The employer has the responsibility for paying all the medical bills if they're reasonable and necessary.”
Unable to hire a lawyer or investigator — and with Koretz having washed his hands of this once-pressing case — Rinnig hopes that going public with his unusual situation will prompt the Zelmans to pay him the reward.
It's money he's not hesitant to say he needs.
“My apartment is going condo,” he says, and large swaths of West Hollywood and surrounding areas are growing too costly for all but the affluent. “If I'm gonna stay in L.A., my rent is gonna go up three times.”
This matter is personal in another way for the local shutterbug. In the late 1990s, Rinnig's then-fiancée was partially paralyzed with brain damage after the car she was driving was struck multiple times. The once-happy couple never married.
Aside from the reward money, he says, that experience prompted him to help. “You're supposed to show support to lift their spirits,” he says of victims, “so they have that desire to survive.”
Reach the writer at jessicapauline@ gmail.com.