DENVER (CBS4) – Deadly hit-and-run crashes have risen dramatically in Denver over the past three years. In 2010, five people were killed in hit-and-run crashes. By 2012, that number more than doubled to 13 deaths.
According to Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, intoxication is the number one reason drivers run instead of staying to help.
In the case of Brittany Gonzales, self-preservation became more important than doing the right thing. On June 18, 2011, Gonzales hit 11-year-old Jiovanni Valdez, who was riding his bike on Irving Street. Gonzales stopped her car only long enough to grab her hubcap before she drove off. During police interviews obtained by CBS4, the 21-year-old Gonzales admitted to driving without a license and drinking heavily before getting behind the wheel.
“I stopped the car, freaked out, got out, ran over and started asking if everyone was okay,” Gonzales told detectives. “I told him to call 911 and I freaked.”
Gonzales left the crash scene and went straight home. She was arrested later that night and would later serve 90 days in jail and two years of probation. The boy she hit suffered a broken leg. From his hospital bed Valdez told CBS4, “She just ran me over for no reason.”
Before 2012 there was actually a legal loophole which provided an incentive for drunk drivers to leave the scene.
“The incentive to leave was that if you were drunk you faced a charge that carried a lesser penalty and the legislature fixed that last year,” Morrissey explained.
A new law closed that loophole by increasing the penalties for leaving the scene of a serious bodily injury accident.
“I think people are more concerned about what is going to happen to them and not what they’ve just done,” said Morrissey of the recent rash of hit-and-runs.
In a case the next summer, 34-year-old Omar Gonzalez hit and killed a little 3-year-old girl, Dariana Martinez-Martin. He told police detectives the brakes on his truck failed and he couldn’t stop. In police interviews he said, “I was driving and the little girl came out so fast.” He said he ran because, “I’m scared, you know. I never hit nobody.”
Afraid, because Gonzalez also had a string of previous traffic arrests. After the crash Gonzalez ditched his car at a nearby park and walked back to the scene. Later he turned himself into police and pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide. He is currently serving eight years in prison as a habitual offender.
Intoxication, lack of a driver’s license and other legal problems are often the top reasons people run, but not the only reasons.
In December of 2011, Dr. Franck Belibi was on his way home from work when he hit a man crossing Havana near Mississippi. The doctor did not stop and help 55-year-old Gregory Havers, who died from his injuries. Belibi told Aurora police he knew he hit something and circled back to see what it was.
“I come back, I don’t see anything and it’s very strange to me that I don’t see anything,” he said.
A second car driving the same direction as Belibi also hit Havers, dragging him down the street. That driver stopped and called police.
Belibi drove home and realized his car was heavily damaged. He offered an unusual explanation after talking to his wife.
“We are very much Christians, so we started thinking is this a supernatural thing that happened? We don’t know,” he said.
Then Belibi filed a false police report online, claiming the crash happened at a different location. He told police he only filed the false report to get his insurance company to fix his vehicle. Aurora police found his SUV at a body shop. Belibi agreed to a plea deal, which spared him from jail time and allowed him to continue practicing medicine. He pleaded guilty to a felony for filing a false police report, not the hit-and-run.
To seasoned prosecutors like Morrissey, there is no good excuse for leaving the scene of an accident.
“You may be afraid, you may be freaked out, but the important thing is you stay at the scene and render aid if you can and you may save somebody’s life.”
– Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com