5:00am

Wed February 12, 2014
Safety

Colorado Hit-And-Runs Leave Law Enforcement 'Looking For A Ghost'

Almost three times a month, someone, likely a pedestrian, is killed in Colorado by a motorist who then flees the scene.

Every day, at least one person in the core of the metro Denver area is injured by a hit-and-run driver.

And a staggering 17 times a day in Denver, someone reports a hit-and-run accident of any kind to police.

Legislators have passed a law to toughen criminal penalties and several cities have adopted alert systems to ask the public’s help in tracking down perpetrators.

But the carnage has continued. An I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS/9News investigation found:

  • Hit-and-run fatalities are rising in Colorado as overall traffic deaths are falling. In 2012, 34 people were killed across Colorado by hit-and-run drivers, almost double the 18 deaths the year before. The result was the state ranked 10th in the U.S. in terms of hit-and-run fatalities per capita. Statistics for last year have not yet been compiled.
  • A total of 104 people have been killed by hit-and-run drivers between 2008 and 2012. Almost two-thirds, or 64, were pedestrians or bicyclists.
  • Between 2011 and 2013, about 1,300 people in the metro area’s three largest cities – Denver, Aurora and Lakewood – were injured or killed in hit and run accidents. That is more than one a day. The injuries ranged from bruises to paralysis.
  • A breakdown of injury accidents by Lakewood police found that about one out of every 13 injury hit-and-run incidents in its city resulted in death or incapacitating trauma.
  • Denver police reported 18,662 hit and run accidents of all types, both injury and non-injury, during the past three years. That is an average of 17 a day.

“We all see the news on the number of hit and runs that are out there,” said Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, sponsor of bills to crack down on the problem. “It just seem like it is an ever-increasing problem.”

Many cases go unsolved.

They include that of Jesse Pringle, 26, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, who was hit and killed as a result of an Aug. 9, 2012 hit-and-run while riding his motorcycle in Lakewood. Police have not been able to find their only suspect.

Also unresolved is the hit-and-run death of David Pickett, who was killed riding his bicycle to work in Denver May 16, 2011, just days after celebrating his 50th birthday. He routinely rode his bike 11 miles to work and made sure to call his wife each day to tell her he had arrived safely.

No one has been arrested in the March 2013 hit and run that killed 8-year-old Za May Khan and 6-year-old Ah Zet Khan as they were crossing the street in East Denver with their mother.

The driver who hit Laurie Gorham, who was pregnant, in December 2010, killing her unborn child, also evaded arrest. Gorham was walking her dog in the Stapleton neighborhood when she was struck.

“It’s a tremendously huge problem,” said Larry Stevenson, former Denver police officer and founder of the Medina Alerts to enlist the public to help police catch hit and run drivers.

“When a hit-and-run occurs, law enforcement is looking for a ghost,” he said.

In addition, the abandonment of an injured victim by the side of the road can lead to delays in getting medical help, especially in sparsely populated areas, Conti said.

“When you get into rural areas, it’s much more likely to be life impacting with fewer witnesses around,” she said.

In some cases, police or passersby have found dead victims of hit and run accidents lying on the side of the road long after the driver had fled, according to police reports.

The perpetrators have ranged from felons with lengthy criminal records to first-time offenders such as former Denver Bronco football player Billy Jenkins.

Sara Solnick, chair of the of the Economics Department at the University of Vermont, said her study from the 1990s on pedestrian hit-and-run deaths showed that drivers who fled felt they had more to lose by staying on the scene.

“If they had a suspended license, or they didn't have a license or they were underage, they were far more likely to do the hit-and-run,” Solnick said.

Alcohol was another major factor. “They were more likely to have a high blood alcohol content,” she said.

Drivers also weighed the chances of getting caught, Solnick’s study found. “The other factor was if they felt they could get away with it,” she said.

As a result, hit-and-run incidents were more common at night and least likely if a child was hit, Solnick’s study showed.

In Colorado, only three of the 104 hit and run fatalities between 2008 and 2012 were children under 10 years of age.

“For a child there is more likely to be a witness,” she said. “There would more likely be other children or adults or some kind of supervision.

A follow-up study released in 2011 by the University of California at Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center found hit-and-run fatalities were more likely to occur in the West and Midwest and that the drivers were likely to be male, young and have prior convictions.

Several measures have been put in place to try to crack down on hit-and-run cases in Colorado.

In 2012, the state Legislature passed a law, co-sponsored by Conti and Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, increasing the potential prison sentence for hit-and-run cases resulting in substantial bodily injury.

That same year, Stevenson launched the Medina Alert program in Denver to get information out to the public and transportation providers to help apprehend drivers who have fled the scene of accidents. It is based on the Amber Alert for missing children.

It is named after Jose Medina, who on his first day of work as a parking valet was killed in a hit-and-run accident in January 2011. Stevenson recalls going to a memorial for Medina and meeting his mother, Linda.

“His mother just made a passing comment when I was walking out the door, ‘Don’t let them forget about my baby,’” Stevenson said.

The driver was eventually caught and sent to prison.

This year, the legislature is taking up a bill, sponsored by Conti, to formalize the alert system through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Alerts would be issued for serious injury and fatal cases in which there is a description of the suspect, car and at least a partial license plate number.

“To answer Linda Medina’s question, nobody will forget about her son now,” Stevenson said.

Conti said the state may need to consider a long-term public awareness campaign similar to what was done for seat belt use and littering to change drivers’ thinking on fleeing accident scenes.

“It takes a change of thought and heart. And that doesn't happen overnight.”

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. Burt Hubbard can be contacted at bhubbard@inewsnetwork.org.