The hit-and-run driver of the minivan that struck bicyclist Damian Kevitt one morning near Griffith Park must have felt and heard the impact. He probably saw Kevitt caught on his hood. Yet as horrified eyewitnesses gaped, the driver — a young, well-groomed Latino — took off down the on-ramp to the 5 freeway, sucking Kevitt under his minivan and dragging him 600 feet.
Trapped facedown, the 36-year-old cyclist was battered against the pavement, shearing off parts of his feet and big areas of skin. As he tried to free himself by grabbing at the road, the ends of some of his fingertips were ground off.
Seconds later, a motorist saw Kevitt's bloodied body roll into the second lane of the I-5. Kevitt's life was saved only because the quick-thinking driver used his car to create a safety zone, shielding the victim's body from the freeway traffic rushing past.
After the Feb. 17 incident, doctors at County/USC Medical Center were forced to amputate Kevitt's shattered right leg. But they repaired his broken wrists, arms and ribs, and soon, Kevitt and his doctors will be engaged in a heroic battle to save his maimed left foot, possibly by transplanting a muscle and healthy veins from Kevitt's back. (A previous effort to transplant a muscle taken from his abdomen to his left foot failed.)
Sgt. Brian Brown of the California Highway Patrol, the lead investigating agency because the crime unfolded on a freeway ramp, says, "Damian remembers the sound of the van accelerating. One of our best witnesses was right behind the van, and he sees, all of a sudden, a body appear — rolling out."
Coverage by local TV stations, coupled with anger from the local bicycling community, has generated unusually strong interest in the case. On Sunday, two aides to state Assemblyman Mike Gatto, Justin Hager and Jason Insalaco, joined the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, L.A. Critical Mass, Midnight Ridazz, CHP and others to leaflet cars and talk to spectators, soccer players and dog walkers who use the Ferraro Soccer Complex near the Los Angeles River on Zoo Drive, where Kevitt was struck.
Many of them suspect that the hit-and-run driver attended or played in a regularly scheduled Sunday morning soccer game on Zoo Drive not far from the collision. They believe that a team member or a soccer fan knows the driver.
Investigators have a few important clues: The minivan, described as gray or white, bore a red-and-white "Se Vende" sign — and a phone number to call. According to CHP, that phone number, partially memorized by eyewitnesses, has a 213 area code and ends in 0776. A $25,000 reward offered by the city and the highway patrol seeks information that will lead to an arrest and conviction.
Colin Bogart of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, who was among those passing out flyers Sunday, says, "If any hit-and-run in Los Angeles is solved, it should be this one," thanks to media coverage and many eyewitnesses on Zoo Drive that day.
Insalaco and Hager have gone to the soccer fields every few days, passing out a flyer seeking the public's help. "We feel the driver almost had to be someone involved in soccer that day," Hager says.
Even as Gatto's aides work to drum up leads, the state assemblyman is tackling the bigger crisis. As the L.A. Weekly first reported, L.A. is in the grip of a little-discussed, decadelong hit-and-run epidemic. Drivers in the city flee nearly half of all collisions — more than 20,000 hit-and-runs annually. Nationally, 11 percent of collisions are hit-and-runs. In L.A., that rate has ranged in recent years from 42 percent to nearly 50 percent.
Yet as the Weekly has reported, the Los Angeles Police Department, famed for its Compstat system of tracking crime data in minute detail, produces only minimal statistics on hit-and-runs and frequently fails to immediately investigate when pedestrians and bicyclists get run down.
On Feb. 22, when the Glendale News-Press revealed the shocking story of Kevitt's leg amputation, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was readying a report ordered by the Los Angeles Police Commission and L.A. City Council in reaction to the Weekly's revelations. (Last fall, Beck refused to comment to the Weekly on any issues involving hit-and-runs.)
According to activists on an LAPD bicycle task force, Beck this month sent LAPD's draft report back for more work. Now due in mid-April, the report is expected to compare L.A.'s crisis to other large cities, according to Doane Liu, aide to City Councilman Joe Buscaino.
Bogart is among many who want hit-and-run convictions to lead to license revocations. He's worried "about what is going into the LAPD report. You would think they'd get input from people familiar with who is getting hit and how — a lot of bicyclists and pedestrians."
Meanwhile, on the state level, Assembly Bill 184, authored by Gatto, would extend the statute of limitations on hit-and-runs from one year to three years. The bill cleared the state Assembly Public Safety Committee several days ago.
Many hit-and-run drivers are assumed to be drunk or high, and they flee the scene to "buy time" so that blood or urine tests won't be incriminating. That strategy prevents prosecutors from pursuing felonies that could put drivers in jail. Many other hit-and-run drivers are believed to be undocumented, afraid the system will treat them harshly.
Even when caught, however, many hit-and-run drivers are let off with a slap on the wrist.
Hit-and-run victim Don Ward, a bicyclist with Midnight Ridazz, memorized most of the license plate of the Jaguar driver who struck him and put him in the hospital a few years ago. Then Ward himself caught the driver — by calling Jaguar body shops. LAPD had informed Ward that they'd need a couple of weeks just to run the plate numbers.
The driver, convicted of "misdemeanor property damage" for crushing Ward's bike, was high-powered City Hall lobbyist Glenn Gritzner. Since it was too late to test Gritzner for drugs or alcohol by the time he was apprehended, a judge sentenced him to just 30 days of trash pickup.
"He didn't even have his license suspended," says Ward, who joined the leafletting of the soccer fields Sunday. "In L.A., people face no consequences. City Councilman Mitch Englander says LAPD often doesn't even confiscate the vehicle from a hit-and-run."
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Eyewitnesses to Kevitt's tragedy were stuck in the chronic Sunday traffic jam on the Zoo Drive overpass, which feeds cars into parking areas for the L.A. Zoo and Autry Museum. The suspect had been sitting in the backup as well. According to eyewitnesses, he abruptly yanked his van to the left and onto the freeway on-ramp just as Kevitt was gliding past, riding close to Zoo Drive's yellow line.
Kevitt's mother, Michelle Kirkland, says, "Our greatest challenge is to avoid infection. And next will be a major attempt at skin grafts on his backside." She's urging people with clues to contact WeTip. Her son, she says, is a minister in the Church of Scientology and "is getting great support from his Scientology colleagues."
Gatto's staff has investigated another possible law — one requiring auto body shops to report suspicious damage to law enforcement via email — but says it will take time to assess the costs and technical challenges of implementing such a law.
Even so, Gatto says police can do far more. "The story of Damian Kevitt being repeated and kept in front of people might force the government to act," the state assemblyman says. "This has been going on since way back, long before anyone could blame budget cuts."