Unsolved Hit-and-Runs Leave Families in Painful Limbo
10:38 AM PST on December 5, 2012
If you've ever been the victim of a random act of violence, you know the deep anger and sadness it can inspire in a person. How it can make you question what you think you know about people. And how vulnerable it can leave you feeling.
For hit-and-run victims and/or their families, the wounds of a single incident can remain fresh and open indefinitely, especially if the perpetrator remains at large.
More than a month after the incident in which her stepfather, Benjamin Torres, was killed in a hit-and-run, Teresa Chaidez acknowledged her family was still in shock.
We are "full of anger" she wrote to me in an email. "We don't understand how a person can possibly drive away, without remorse."
She recounted an incident in which she, herself, had collided with a cyclist the year before. She had made sure the roadway was clear for her to make a right turn, she said, when she suddenly saw a cyclist directly in front of her.
"I felt like my life was over," she recounted. "I stepped on my brakes, got out immediately and made sure he was OK. I offered to call 911, to take him to the hospital along with his bike. [But] he was fine. Thank God!...I was not speeding at all; I had [just] bumped into him."
She felt so guilty for such a long time, she said, and had remained in contact with the cyclist, even emailing him recently to see how he and his family were doing and to relate the story of her stepfather's death. Her own experience and remorse makes it even harder for her to understand how someone could have left Torres for dead in the street. Especially because the driver must have known just how badly they had hurt Torres. The impact was brutal -- Torres suffered severe head injuries even though he had been wearing a helmet. And, there had been significant damage to the vehicle. The collision left debris strewn up and down the street.
While the debris has made identification of the type of vehicle driven easier -- Gardena police describe the vehicle as "a maroon or purple 1995-2001 Ford Explorer or 1997-2001 Mercury Mountaineer with matching trim" and note that it likely has "front passenger side collision damage, involving the front passenger side headlight and turn indicator" -- finding the actual vehicle has proven more difficult.
Gardena Traffic Investigator Matthew Hassoldt says they have followed up on several leads but none took them to the car or driver. And there have been no tips.
It has now been about two months since the incident.
Fearing that the case would fade from the public's consciousness, the East Side Riders (ESRBC) have pledged to the family that they would hold monthly rides in Torres' honor.
The family is grateful for the ESRBC's interest in helping keeping their stepfather's memory alive.
They had hoped someone would take an interest in the case but, like many families, they weren't sure who to reach out to or how. And, they probably wouldn't have gotten their story out if another rider, Biz, hadn't come upon the ghost bike for Torres while riding with his teenage son. When they stopped to check out the bike, they met Torres' family, who were coming to the site to relight the memorial candles. Biz -- who had just participated in the Black & Brown Unity Ride with the ESRBC, Ovarian Psycos and Black Kids on Bikes -- immediately reached out to ESRBC president John Jones for help in getting the word out and setting up a memorial ride.
The first event, held Nov. 10, was "wonderful, full of emotion," Chaidez wrote me.
"No words can describe how it impacted my family and I."
She hopes the second ride, scheduled for this weekend, will draw even more attention to the unique problems created by hit-and-runs.
Beyond having to process the callousness of someone leaving their loved one in the street to die and the lack of closure for families and victims, families struggle to keep hit-and-run victims alive in the public consciousness over the long term. This is particularly true if the victim was an adult male, lower-income, a minority, or (especially) an immigrant. Sometimes the news of a collision may not even pierce the city's consciousness in the first place. A cyclist that suffered major injuries when hit around 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 23rd near USC, for example, was only identified in most news outlets as a "non-USC student" in his 20s, and there has been no further word on his condition or who he is since then.*
If rewards aren't offered, it becomes even less likely that the perpetrator will be found.
All of which can be very painful for families: a family member is run down and left to suffer alone, in public and away from their loved ones, and no one takes notice.
For Torres' family, it is an especially sad burden to bear because Torres had always been the one to make sure that everyone else was doing OK.
He had come from hardship. He quit school at an early age in Guerrero, Mexico, in order to get a job and help his mother and stepfather raise his siblings. He continued to send money home to his family there, even after coming to the US and beginning a new life. As the oldest child, says Chaidez, he felt responsible for making sure that everyone was taken care of.
When he met and fell in love with Chaidez' mother, Maria, he stepped into a ready-made family. He was undeterred by the fact that she had five teenage children and took the challenge on happily because he loved her. And, although it wasn't always easy, they eventually all came to an understanding.
"He managed to deal with us," recounts Chaidez. "He loved my mother unconditionally, he wasn’t letting anything or anyone get in his way."
They were inseparable for 17 years.
According to his family, he was an independent and original spirit. Chaidez remembers him driving a car at one point -- probably to be able to take her mother out dancing early in their courtship -- but says he soon sold the car and bought a bike. He made it his main form of transportation, enjoying both the relaxation of riding and the fact that he didn't have to spend money on gas.
On the morning of October 10, Torres had been on his way to his job at Brek Manufacturing in Gardena, where he had worked for the past six years. He began work early, and was usually on the road by 4:15 a.m. His family worried about him being out on the road in the dark, but he did not like the idea of having to pay for gas money just to go to work.
Some time between 4:30 and 5 a.m., he was struck from behind while traveling eastbound along 135th St. He suffered severe head trauma despite wearing a helmet. When he was later found lying in the road by a worker at a nearby business, he was already dead.
He leaves behind his wife, the 5 former teenagers, and 12 grandchildren. The family hopes you will join them at the memorial ride this Saturday, Dec. 8th, at 3:30 p.m. in Rowley Memorial Park. For more details on the event, please click here.
*Calls to the South Traffic Division yield no information about the incident as the officers tell me they cannot dig up the case for me without a name. The reason, I was told, is that they get multiple hit-and-run reports on a daily basis. When I said that seemed to be important thing for the public to know because we do not hear about them and asked if there was some way members of the public could access and track that information, I was told "no" because "much of the information is confidential." When I clarified that I was looking to track information on incidents, not trace victims to hospitals, I was still told "no," I couldn't access that information. Hit-and-runs are civil cases, an officer told me, which is why they don't show up in crime-stat databases and are not easily accessible to the public.
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