The City of Miami ranks first in the nation in terms of pedestrians run over by cars. About six of every 100,000 people are killed each year, according to the most recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thats more than New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, or Phoenix.
In about two of every three of those deaths, the driver simply takes off.
Indeed Miami-Dade is the hit-and-run capital of the Southeast. Last year the county saw 46 such fatalities, almost one per week. That's quadruple the number in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and a third higher than Broward and Palm Beach combined. In Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is located, only seventeen people were nailed by motorists who fled.
What makes these drivers run, and who are the victims? To find answers, Miami New Times recently sifted through dozens of hit-and-run accident reports from the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami-Dade County Police.
Our findings: Sometimes those who flee are driving stolen cars. Other times they simply panic. And on other occasions, they are intoxicated, don't have a driver's license, or are uninsured. Among those arrested is a teenage habitual traffic offender who said he was frightened of his victim's family. Then there was the ex-Marine with a clean record who allegedly drank too much one Friday night. And who could forget the guy who fled an accident in 1995 and went to jail, only to be busted on the same charge upon his release?
The victims are equally wide-ranging. One was an 86-year-old woman crossing the street; another was a ten-year-old boy setting off a firecracker.
Their stories provide a look at how Miami's immigrant culture complicates investigations, how innocent kids can become victims, and how the criminal justice system fails miserably at keeping reckless drivers from getting behind the wheel.
Around 5:30 a.m. this past September 24, Juan Hernandez Carrillo wandered into the pitch-black on the east shoulder of Krome Avenue near SW 154th Street in Southwest Miami-Dade. The 26-year-old Guatemalan migrant worker was trying to get a signal on his cell phone. His late-model Chevrolet Cavalier had broken down, and he was trying to call one of his friends for help.
Then, suddenly, a white Ford Econoline van traveling north on Krome struck him. The impact tossed Carrillo into the path of a 1993 Chevy Astrovan driven by 71-year-old Ralph Cecil, who was headed to Key Largo for some fishing. "My wife [Charlene] was asleep when it happened," Cecil said during a phone interview from his home in Zellwood, just north of Orlando. "I only caught a glimpse of him through the passenger-side window. He knocked our boat trailer about two feet up in the air."
The impact crumpled a section of the trailer's undercarriage, which is made of heavy-duty cast iron. "I've never been in an accident like that," Cecil says. "It tore him up bad his leg, his arm, and the back of his head. I'm still finding pieces of him underneath my trailer."
Cecil pulled over and ran to where Carrillo had landed face-down. But there was nothing the recreational fisherman could do. An unidentified man who was with Carrillo and saw the van hit him, ran from the scene. "He just took off," Cecil says.
While the Cecils waited for police, they tried to keep other motorists from running over the body. Soon a dozen state troopers and several rescue vehicles arrived. At 10:30 a.m. the Cecils continued on. "It was awful," Cecil says.
A few minutes past noon, police called Armando Garcia, a Cuban-American landscaper who owns a nursery near the accident site. Garcia, who had employed the man as a farm worker, was walking into a Sedano's supermarket when his cell phone rang. "They asked me if I knew Juan," Garcia says. "I said yes, and they told me a car had hit him."
Around 1:00 p.m., Garcia met with FHP crash investigators at his farm. They had Carrillo's driver's license, a false passport, his cell phone, and $1200. Garcia told them he had let Carrillo reside on his farm rent-free in exchange for manual labor. Garcia had last seen the Guatemalan worker Saturday afternoon. "His death hurt me a lot," Garcia says. "He was like family to me."
Garcia later rummaged through Carrillo's belongings, found phone numbers for his family, and called one of his sisters to relay the bad news. That evening Garcia was visited by Carrillo's nephew Juan Brito and brother-in-law Miguel Ramon Sanchez; they were the dead man's only relatives in Miami-Dade.
They had received a call from an unidentified man who had been with the farm hand when his Cavalier broke down. The caller said he had witnessed Carrillo being pulverized and fled the scene. "Unfortunately his friend who saw the van isn't going to come forward because he is here illegally," Sanchez explains. "He's afraid he'll get deported."
Brito, a short 23-year-old with a thin mustache and gold-capped bottom teeth, says that before moving to Homestead five years ago, Carrillo had earned a meager living cutting sugar cane in his hometown of Palop. Carrillo was a teenager when he married Cecilia. The couple had two sons, now eight and ten years old, and a daughter, now six. Cecilia and the children live in Guatemala.
Once here, Carrillo had worked a variety of odd jobs, from landscaping to pouring concrete. This past June, while walking home one night to his apartment near Mowry Drive, he had been knifed in the abdomen, arms, and face during a robbery. "He was scared it would happen again, so he left Homestead," Brito says.
Family members including Sanchez and Brito soon raised the $2225 necessary to ship Carrillo's body to Guatemala. He was buried in a family plot in a cemetery a half-mile from his hometown.
This past September 15, Alan Lefebvre was piloting his late-model Chevrolet van near Federal Highway and Van Buren Street in Hollywood when he swerved off the road, jumped the sidewalk, and slammed into a pole, a speed sign, a bus bench, and an 86-year-old woman named Florence Destefano, who was out on her morning stroll. The 45-year-old carpet installer continued motoring until he reached the Ives Dairy Road exit of southbound I-95, where officers from the Hollywood and Miami-Dade Police departments pulled him over.
The Miami Gardens resident was driving with a suspended license and no insurance. After issuing sobriety tests, the cops impounded his van and transported him to the three-bedroom house he shares with his mother at NW Third Avenue and 204th Terrace.
Soon they discovered he had quite a criminal record. In 1976 Lefebvre was convicted of felony burglary. A year later he was placed on six months' probation after being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In 1980 he was convicted on another felony burglary and served 2 years 33 days in jail.
In his first serious traffic accident, Lefebvre was 34 years old and traveling eastbound on Taft Street at 66th Avenue in a 1993 white Chevy truck. It was about 6:23 p.m. on January 14, 1995, when Lefebvre viciously rear-ended a 1989 Dodge truck. The impact was so powerful it rendered the Dodge's passenger, Ismael Borrero, unconscious. He also fractured his right arm in two places.
Three witnesses then observed Lefebvre fleeing the scene, driving erratically, and, at one point, traveling against traffic on Taft, thus running several vehicles off the road. Lefebvre lost control of his truck and smacked into a cement pole, several signs, and the First Baptist Church's metal fence. He opened the driver's-side door and staggered into the street. When a police officer approached him, Lefebvre tried to climb over the fence.
The errant driver was transported to the Hollywood Police station, where he submitted to three sobriety tests and the Breathalyzer. He missed the tip of his nose several times when he performed the finger-to-nose test. He attempted the heel-to-toe exam, but the cops stopped him out of concern he was going to fall down and injure himself. Yet he blew a .000 on the Breathalyzer. When he was asked to provide a urine sample, Lefebvre refused.
Hollywood Police charged him with driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident with injuries. He served eleven months in jail and three years of probation. In 1997 he was arrested for violating his probation. He was then arrested for knowingly driving with a suspended license in 1999, 2000, and 2001.
After hitting Destefano in September, Lefebvre told the Miami Herald he had dozed off and thought he hit a bus bench. "I kept driving because it didn't look like it was nothing," he said. Lefebvre did not return three phone messages left with his mother Betty, who did not want to talk about her son's troubles. "You'll have to speak to him about that," she said this past October 15.
Destefano suffered internal bleeding and multiple broken bones, including a smashed pelvis and a compound fracture of her right leg. The four-foot eleven-inch, 100-pound Port Chester, New York native survived, but she spent a month in the intensive care unit at Memorial Regional Hospital.
Destefano, who has never married and was nicknamed "Bingo Flo" by her neighbors, moved to Hollywood in 1976, her younger brother Rocco explains. He gave her a job as a secretary at his law practice. Bingo Flo would walk from her condo on Eighteenth and Jefferson to Young Circle every day. "The doctors say her leg will never fully recover," Rocco adds.
The 74-year-old retired attorney complains his sister's hospital bill will easily exceed $200,000, and Medicare will cover only 80 percent. "I don't know where the rest of that money is going to come from," he says. "And this guy who ran her over is driving around with no insurance. Son of a gun."
Rocco is upset that Lefebvre has still not been charged criminally and that he has gotten away with so much for so long. "He keeps getting out of jail due to the liberal judges we have in Florida," Rocco sneers. "I don't know how he's allowed to be on the road. He'll probably kill someone next time."
According to Hollywood Police spokesman Det. Carlos Negron, investigators are waiting for toxicology reports confirming Lefebvre was under the influence before they formally charge him with leaving the scene of an accident and other possible felonies. "We want a solid case against this guy," Negron says.
Since he hasn't been charged, Lefebvre is free to walk the streets or perhaps even drive. He doesn't seem to mind getting behind the wheel without a license.
A 37-year-old single mom with short brown hair and blond highlights, Martha Gonzalez moved to Miami from Bogotá, Colombia, in 1991. Four years later, she gave birth to a son, Johan Sebastian, and moved back to her home country. She returned to South Florida in 2002 but left Johan behind to live with her parents and study at a private school. "I just think the schooling is a little more regimented in Colombia," Gonzalez explains.
He enjoyed playing soccer and riding his bicycle. He was a disciplined student whose favorite subject was mathematics and who loved to paint with oils and watercolors. "He was very creative," his mother boasts. "But he wasn't rebellious. He was a very well-mannered boy."
Johan would fly to Miami every December for three weeks and also for three-month summer vacations. This past June 24, Martha took the boy to her new, two-story, three-bedroom townhouse in a residential development at SW 139th Avenue and 176th Street in Kendall. "I used to live in a two-bedroom apartment [not too far away]," she says. "But I wanted to get a bigger place. He wanted to have a back yard and his own room."
On July 4 around 11:00 p.m., Johan was kneeling down in the dimly lit, narrow private street in front of his mother's house, igniting firecrackers. Other children and adults mingled nearby. At the street's dead end, a gray four-door 2003 Isuzu Rodeo with tinted windows had just dropped off a passenger. The Rodeo's driver, Carlos Ventura, shifted into reverse and began to back out when he hit Johan, knocking the child head-first into the asphalt.
Five witnesses, including Martha Gonzalez, yelled at Ventura, who stopped and got out of the SUV. A commotion ensued. Gonzalez's neighbors charged at Ventura. Martha grabbed the young driver. "I screamed at him to help my son," she says. "But he didn't care. He got back in his car and took off."
While they waited for the police and paramedics to arrive, neighbors consoled Martha by telling her Johan was going to be all right. "But I knew when I saw him on the ground," she reveals, "that he was dead."
According to Ventura's defense attorney, H. Scott Fingerhut, the nineteen-year-old bolted because he feared for his life. "It was only when Carlos's own safety became in dire jeopardy that he thought it best to take cover elsewhere," Fingerhut says.
One of the witnesses, Christina Cordovez, who lives at 17536 SW 143rd Pl., said the neighbors pounded on Ventura's car windows and called him a killer as he drove off, according to her sworn statement. "He would have stayed," Fingerhut insists, "but the people there made it hard for him to do so."
About a half-hour after hitting Johan, Ventura, accompanied by his parents, turned himself in at the Miami-Dade Police Hammocks station, where he was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death as well as driving with a suspended driver's license while causing a death. Both are felonies. Ventura gave a taped sworn statement to traffic homicide investigators, and two days later police impounded his Rodeo.
Fingerhut maintains his client's innocence, asserting that Ventura, the father of a one-year-old boy, has fully cooperated with police. What happened this past Independence Day was a "horrible accident," he says. "Though we wish we could, there is nothing any of us can do now to bring this boy back home," Fingerhut says. "My client is devastated by the pain he's caused, but at no time did Carlos shirk his legal responsibilities."
Martha Gonzalez says her life has been terrible the past four months without Johan. "It is something you don't want to admit happened," Gonzalez says. She lives alone with her pet Yorkie, Mateo. With no family in Miami, she has relied on her neighbors. "My friends are always checking on me," she says. "They worry about me. They support me."
Gonzalez intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Ventura, who has been thrice ticketed for careless driving this year. "I just want justice," she says. "I've cried so much already."
This past April 8 at 2:25 a.m., Casimir Wrobel of Naranja was behind the wheel of a 2004 Chevrolet van registered to his employer, ADT, a security company. The 45-year-old alarm installer was traveling south in the center lane of South Dixie Highway when he ran a red light at SW 220th Street in Goulds.
Ten feet past the intersection, he rammed into Samuel Render, a 55-year-old Goulds resident who was pedaling his bicycle. Wrobel continued driving until Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Steven Liebowitz pulled him over at SW 230th Street. Wrobel said he didn't know he had run over a human being, even though Render's mangled body was splayed out on the van's hood, windshield, and roof, according to the traffic investigation report. Liebowitz and officers from the Florida Highway Patrol, who investigated the crash, noted a strong odor of alcohol on Wrobel's breath.
"I wasn't going to stop," Wrobel allegedly told the investigators. "I thought I hit a dog."
Render was pronounced dead at the scene. Blood tests confirmed Wrobel was drunk. He had a blood-alcohol level of .224 percent, more than twice the amount needed to charge him with driving under the influence.
Wrobel turned himself in to traffic investigator Cpl. Gonzalo Peña this past June 27. The security technician was slapped with two felony counts of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. During a brief phone conversation this past October 15, Wrobel declined to comment, referring New Times to his attorney, Joseph Pappacoda, who did not respond to phone messages left with his secretary and on his office voicemail over the span of two weeks.
According to documents filed by Pappacoda as well as Wrobel's 2002 divorce file the Chicago native holds a bachelor's degree in electronic management from Southern Illinois University. He joined the Marines and was honorably discharged in 1987. Two years later he married Gladys Rivera. In 1991 the couple had their first child, Casimir Jr. They have another son, thirteen-year-old Luis. In 1995 the Wrobels moved to Miami-Dade. A year later the elder Casimir was hired by ADT.
In 2002 the couple divorced, citing irreconcilable differences. Casimir and Gladys agreed to share custody of their children.
Life has become even more difficult for the ex-Marine since the accident. ADT fired him upon learning he was driving a company vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Wrobel has been unable to spend time with his sons and has not paid his $1000-per-month child support payments.
Render, a lanky red-bone, was probably biking to a 24-hour convenience store on the west side of South Dixie Highway when Wrobel plowed into him, Render's friends say. David Mann, the victim's roommate and childhood friend, had just come home when his niece told him someone had been hit by a car on the highway. Mann and his wife Chetawn shared with Render a two-bedroom apartment on SW 120th Avenue and 220th Street. "I went to the traffic light and I seen [Render's] hat lying on the road," the 45-year-old Mann recalls. "So I asked the police officer where [Render] was, and he told me he was down on 230th Street."
Mann and Chetawn walked to 230th Street, where police had pulled over Wrobel. There they saw Render's body, covered up, lying on the van's passenger side. "The hood was bent inward," Mann describes, "like he hit a tree or another car, not a person."
Mann was devastated. "He was like a brother to me. We grew up together in this neighborhood. It hurts."
Render graduated from Mays Senior High (now a middle school) in Goulds and was drafted by the army to serve in Vietnam. The partially bald, goateed Render was dressed in an olive green suit and white gloves when he was laid to rest this past April 22. His body was viewed at Jay Funeral Home, and the eulogy service was held at the Goulds Temple Church of God in Christ. "There was a veil over him," remembers Chetawn. "He looked like he was sleeping. Sam was such a good man."
Render's neighbor Stanley Lashley says Render had worked at odd electrical jobs, spent time with his grandson, played his blues record collection, and shared war stories. "Otis Redding, James Brown," Lashley recalls. "You name it, he had it." Lashley met Render six years ago. They became instant buddies.
Render's regular wardrobe consisted of fatigues and orthopedic shoes from the veteran's hospital. He did not have a car and relied on his bicycle for transportation. "Sam was always cruising around," says Lashley, who last saw his neighbor the night before he perished. "He loved his bike."
Like his deceased friend, Lashley has first-hand experience with a runaway vehicle. In 2000 he was the victim of a hit-and-run. He was on the sidewalk near SW 304th Street and South Dixie Highway in Homestead sometime after 5:00 in the morning. "I was on my way to work," Lashley says. "I was going to catch a bus. Before I made it to U.S. 1, I heard a vehicle coming behind me."
Lashley didn't bother to turn around because he was on the sidewalk. He assumed the car was on the street. "Then boom!" Lashley continues. "Next thing I know, I'm knocked into these bushes and I pass out."
When he regained consciousness, Lashley says he crawled into the street and then pulled himself back. "I realized someone could hit me again," he says. "I was wearing a red-and-white jacket, so I took it off, started waving it so someone could see me."
He tried to stand. "But this leg wasn't moving jack!" Lashley banters, holding his left thigh. "My tibia, my knee, and my hip were broken." Then he fainted again. The next time he woke up, he was surrounded by fire-rescue personnel. "That was the day I won the Lotto," he cracks, "because I'm alive to talk about it."
Lashley, who is missing his top front teeth and has surgical scars running down his left leg, lost his job and spent several months in rehab at Homestead Hospital and Coral Reef Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. "Finally my insurance ran out, and they shipped me out to a shelter where I lived for nine months," he says. "Thank God I got my disability."
Lashley is convinced the driver who hit him was inebriated. "For someone to hit me at that hour of the morning and keep booking, they had to be drunk," he opines. Yet he bears no animosity or ill will toward the person who barreled into him. "I know what it is like to have something eat at your conscience," he says. "It can bother you for a long time. So that's why I forgive the person who did it."
So why are there so many hit-and-runs here? Probably the biggest contributing factor is the high rate of uninsured motorists on Miami-Dade roadways, says Lt. Pat Santangelo of the Florida Highway Patrol. "Sometimes they are illegals and don't have a license, much less insurance."
In Florida about one in five drivers is uninsured. In Miami that number is at least 25 percent higher.
Even when they charge hit-and-run drivers, prosecutors sometimes have a difficult time making a case stick. Part of the problem is that cops can't use information gathered for an accident report in a criminal investigation. An officer must tell drivers he is concluding the traffic investigation and that he is going to ask questions pertaining to a criminal investigation. That makes investigations tricky.
Moreover, adds Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney David I. Gilbert, such cases are difficult to prove, even if investigations are well done. "A lot of cases come down to accident reconstruction experts," he says. "Ours may say the defendant was doing 55 mph in a 30 mph zone, but [the defense expert] may say he was doing 40 mph."
Lack of evidence poses another problem. "If they don't leave 200 feet of skid marks, and there were no traffic lights, what are we left with?" Gilbert adds.
Kendall-based personal injury attorney Justin Ziegler says until the state imposes harsher penalties against hit-and-run drivers, the problem will continue. In fact he expects the numbers to grow. "Hit-and-runs are going to increase as the middle class keeps getting smaller," he says. "People just can't afford to pay insurance. And if they get into an accident, they panic and leave."
Ziegler's advice to those who are insured: Make sure you have uninsured motorist coverage in your policy. "You always assume that the other guy doesn't have insurance," he adds.
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