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Hit-And-Run Deaths Increase, But Culprits Hard To Capture

Officers Carol Mitchell and John Hill investigate the death of a disabled teen who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Los Angeles.
Gloria Hillard for NPR
Officers Carol Mitchell and John Hill investigate the death of a disabled teen who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Los Angeles.

Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are increasing nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Los Angeles and New York City have the highest rates of those deaths.

In Los Angeles, where the car is the major mode of transportation, hit and runs involving pedestrians occur almost daily. But these crimes can be the most difficult for law enforcement to investigate and solve.

People Don't Want To Get Involved

The flowers of a makeshift memorial along a busy street in south Los Angeles are wilting within a jagged circle of candles. A stuffed animal leans against a cardboard cross. And taped to poster board are family pictures of a disabled teen killed by a hit-and-run driver while he was crossing the street.

"After he was struck, the vehicle slowed down momentarily, and then proceeded south and never stopped, never came back," says Los Angeles police officer Carol Mitchell, the lead officer on the case. "As long as I've been doing it, it still doesn't, you know, get easier. I mean, each one of these fatalities affects me."

The only clues available to investigators are the blurred, black-and-white images captured by a nearby business surveillance camera. They cannot identify the driver of the minivan or the license plate. On this day, Mitchell and her partner will spend hours canvassing the boulevard.

Mitchell also planned to look at a couple of more cameras, but these cases can go cold very quickly. As with most crimes, the first 48 hours are crucial.

"This was at 7 p.m., a very busy Saturday night," Mitchell says. "Somebody saw this happen, and if they didn't see it, they have seen a car that fits that description with that traffic collision damage to it, and they're just not saying anything. People just don't want to get involved."

Mitchell's next stop is a body shop. Hit-and-run drivers will often try to repair collision damages or paint the vehicle another color.

A Maddening Situation

In 2012, the LAPD recorded more than 2,500 motor vehicle vs. pedestrian incidents. They range from minor injury to death. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that pedestrian traffic fatalities in Los Angeles are nearly triple the national average.

"Just in the last few days, we've had three pedestrians who were just killed when they were crossing the street," says Detective Bill Bustos, the officer in charge of the LAPD's Valley Traffic Division. He says that like many cities across the country, L.A. drivers and pedestrians are increasingly distracted by electronic devices. But here, the problem is exacerbated.

"Here we live in our vehicle practically, we commute everywhere we go," he says.

LAPD officer Rhiannon Talley and her partner, Detective Chris Laurino, have huge caseloads.

"There's so much — so many cases, so many victims, and not enough hours in the day," Talley says.

According to Laurino, they "handle as much if not more fatalities than most homicide units."

Arriving at a scene of a serious accident is not for the faint of heart. But one of the hardest things for investigators to deal with, says Laurino, is when the person responsible for the carnage has left the scene.

"They'll drive their car home, and they'll wash the blood off, cover the car up and act like nothing happened," says Laurino. "It's incredible the lack of conscience some people have."

This year, the Valley Traffic Division has solved roughly half of its pedestrian hit-and-run fatalities.

A memorial for Conor Lynch, a 16-year-old who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2010.
/ Gloria Hillard for NPR
Gloria Hillard for NPR
A memorial for Conor Lynch, a 16-year-old who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2010.

"When there's a hit and run, unlike other crimes ... the primary evidence is gone, and what you're left with, if you look at a fatality, is a body," says Capt. Jeff Bert. "But I can imagine for families, for loved ones, for people who have lost the most precious thing in their life and then to have the department not be able to solve it, it must be maddening."

'A Slap On The Wrist'

Two years ago, Jeri Dye Lynch's 16-year-old son, Conor, was crossing a street near his school when he was struck and killed by a driver in an SUV.

"Anytime I go back to that day, it's a hard one," she says. "In Conor's case, there were some great Samaritans, and that's the one thing that gives me comfort to know he just wasn't there, a 16-year-old on the street dying with nobody there, because the driver left."

Lynch says the 18-year-old unlicensed driver ended up turning herself in.

"She plea bargained, and her sentence was probably by any measure a slap on the wrist," she says.

According to Lynch, the driver received 90 days of community service and three years' probation. In memory of her son, Lynch has established the Conor Lynch Foundation to raise awareness about road safety and distracted driving.

But on a recent day on the street where Conor was hit, few if any of the drivers pay attention to the posted school zone speed of 25 mph, or the hand-painted murals and fresh flowers of what is now the teen's permanent memorial.

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Gloria Hillard
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