Left for dead: L.A. leads in hit and runs

NEWS hitnrun mb2

Hit and run accidents in Los Angeles  County are an epidemic. There are about 20,000 cases each year. Not all result in fatalities, but of those that do, the cases are difficult to solve because the suspects are either drunk or undocumented, unlicensed drivers.  I looked into the issue for this story that ran in the Daily News (March 8, 2006).. The photo above by photographer Michael Owen Baker is of Doug Gregory, an EMT who was hit while assisting an accident victim on the side of the freeway. A motorist in a Datsun sideswiped Gregory and left him for dead. From my story:

Somewhere out there is the woman whose beat-up sedan crashed into flesh and bone one night just before Christmas and then sped away, leaving Elias Geha to die on a Glendale street.

“If I find the person, I would say: At least have some decency to stop by and say, ‘I’m sorry, it was an accident,”’ said John Balta, Geha’s brother-in-law.

“If it was a mistake, that’s fine. But how can someone live like that? How can they sleep at night? If you hit a dog, you feel so sorry for the dog. But this was a human being.” The driver, who police believe is a woman, and thousands of others have given California the dishonorable distinction of having the nation’s highest rate of hit-and-run collisions, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Last year, 8,325 hit-and-run collisions were reported on San Fernando Valley streets, a 2 percent increase from 2004. An additional 700 hit- and-run crashes occurred on freeways that run through the Valley, officials said.

 While most of the crashes do not result in injuries, Geha and nine other Valley residents lost their lives last year – all of those cases unsolved. Because overwhelmed law enforcement typically moves on to more pressing cases, many families of the victims are left forever wondering what happened.

 Gary Bladow, one of two investigators with the California Highway Patrol’s Valley station, said the high number of cases points to many motorists’ “lack of wanting to take responsibility.”

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of those who do it don’t come forward,” Bladow said. “My desk is full of cases. In the four years that I’ve been here, I’ve never had an empty desk.”

 The Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Traffic Division says unlicensed or drunk drivers are those most likely to flee the scene of a crash.

To prevent those types of crashes, the division has targeted those motorists, last year impounding 11,493 cars from unlicensed drivers and arresting 2,951 motorists for driving while intoxicated, an 18 percent increase from 2004.

 “We led the city,” Capt. Ronald Marbrey said. “We are committed to bringing drunk drivers in.”

 LAPD Detective Bill Bustos said hit-and-run drivers rarely surrender, but when they do, they often say the same thing.

 “They say they were scared and they didn’t know what to do, and they panicked and they fled,” he said. “But it would be a lot better if motorists knew the law. They have a responsibility to stop. It becomes a crime when they flee.”

 Under California law, a driver involved in any incident resulting in injury or death must stop immediately and report the crash, or face a felony violation that can lead to up to four years in county jail and up to a $10,000 fine.

 Those who damage property and run can be charged with a misdemeanor leading to up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.

 Hit-and-runs also have increased steadily in Glendale, where police have dedicated two investigators solely to those crashes.

 Detectives say they are close to finding the motorist who hit and killed Geha, who would have turned 69 on Christmas Eve and planned to retire from his job as a security guard at the end of 2005. His family has set up a $10,000 reward. Geha’s employer, Farmers Insurance, has matched that amount.

 “We believe we know who the suspect is,” Glendale police Detective Matt Gunnell said. “She is a fugitive. We’re working very hard to find her.”

 But for those who lose someone to the crime, the pain never stops, said Reseda resident Vincent Ballajadia, who lost his mother to a hit-and-run driver.

 Gloria Ballajadia, 75, died Dec. 18 of injuries suffered Nov. 5 when she was struck by a white or silver hatchback at Alvarado and Temple streets in Los Angeles while returning home from playing bingo.

 “There’s not one minute every day when I don’t think about my mom, how we had these happy times,” said Ballajadia, 37. “It’s very devastating when people don’t care, when they think they can just hit somebody and speed away.”

 Ballajadia said police have offered few answers, and he has lost hope of ever finding the culprits.

 “All I have left are memories and videotapes of all the good times with the family,” he said. “Every time I look at those tapes, I feel like I’m dreaming.

 “I have a message for the killers: They took away someone who is dear to the family. It’s not like a cat or puppy they ran over. This is a person who lived 75 years on this Earth and made a big impact.”

 For those injured in a hit-and-run, the accident is often life-changing.

 Doug Gregory, 21, has a hole behind his right knee, a scar so deep doctors considered skin grafts. The injuries could quash his dream of becoming a firefighter.

 As an emergency medical technician, he has seen firsthand the result of hit-and-run accidents. But at 7 a.m. Jan. 2, he became a victim of one while attending to a crash scene near the eastbound 118 Freeway interchange. A gray pickup truck slammed into his legs, then another car, before hitting a soundwall, spinning out and then continuing on, sputtering smoke.

 “I was knocked out for a few minutes,” Gregory said from his Woodland Hills home, where he sat propped up against pillows, his right leg in a brace. “My head was lying in the slow lane, and I could see cars go by just a foot away.”

 In a strange way, the unidentified driver might have done him a favor.

 Gregory had enlisted in the Marines. The day after he was hit, he would have gone off to boot camp, and maybe into the war zones of Iraq. He has decided to go to college instead.

 “I’m not angry. I’m just so grateful I’m alive and breathing and walking,” he said. “I just wish the person would come forward and take responsibility, so it won’t happen again to someone else.”

 

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