Florida's Hit-and-Run Drivers Kill and Get Away With It
Before the crash: Larrieu and Arrojas.
Photo courtesy of Miguel Larrieu
It ended with a boom: a 40-year relationship and two lives — one dead and gone, the other alive and alone. Jorge Arrojas and his partner, Miguel Larrieu, were heading home, fresh from a dinner party in Bal Harbour around midnight last August 10 on I-75 when a red 2009 Ferrari 430 Scuderia smacked the couple's Hyundai at close to 100 mph.
As the Hyundai somersaulted right, the sports car, its front end accordioned, skidded left into the grassy median. Larrieu, a 63-year-old retired engineer, found his partner unconscious and slumped over. By the time authorities arrived, the driver of the disabled Ferrari had run off; Arrojas was pronounced dead on the scene.
"If there is a God," a tearful Larrieu says today, "he was watching over me that day."
Florida's Hit-and-Run Drivers Kill and Get Away With It
Two days later, the Florida Highway Patrol identified amateur racecar driver Radomin Delgado as the Ferrari's owner. But even now, eight months later, neither he nor anyone else has been arrested for the tragic hit-and-run. To Larrieu, that's a travesty. "I hate the fact that this man hasn't been charged yet," he says.
The Ferrari's driver had no incentive to stay, to help, or to call 911. Thanks to a glitch in Florida law, dozens or perhaps hundreds of motorists who have fled deadly crashes later squeezed free with light sentences despite their cold-blooded behavior. New legislation sitting on Gov. Rick Scott's desk aims to curtail Florida's culture of hit-and-run. It's one small step toward keeping more blood off the streets. After reviewing more than 20 cases of pedestrians and motorists killed by drivers who fled, New Times found:
• Runaway killers have driven every kind of car from Lamborghinis to Mustangs and have been intoxicated with everything from booze to synthetic marijuana.
• Victims range from Bible salesmen to vacationing tourists. One was a 5-year-old on a tricycle.
• The average sentence was 2.9 years of jail time or house arrest.
• Recently, there's been an explosion of hit-and-runs across Florida, with an average of three people killed every week.
"This is an epidemic," says Jose "Pepe" Diaz, a Miami-Dade commissioner who's worked on legislation to address the problem. "It's heartbreaking, disturbing, and frustrating when you see these people leave the scene of an accident. Enough is enough."
Current Florida sentencing guidelines for leaving the scene of an accident are vague. They can be anywhere from 21 months to 30 years if the wreck involves death. Judges have extreme discretion to weigh factors such as a defendant's criminal record or health condition when handing out a sentence.
But when a drunk driver is involved, the court must hand down at least a four-year sentence. That means — unless you are drunk — judges can be extraordinarily lenient. It also means drivers have every incentive to flee a crash.
And drivers are doing it in increasing numbers. In 2012, the state totaled 70,000 hit-and-runs, an increase of 500 from the previous year, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. That includes 166 fatalities.
What's shocking is how many of those responsible escape without significant jail time. Take, for example, the case of Craig Elford and Kenneth Watkinson. In February 2009, the two men were in Fort Lauderdale to recruit hires for their U.K.-based pharmaceutical company. As the men stood steps from their hotel on A1A at 2:30 a.m., 34-year-old Ryan LeVin came barreling down the street in a $120,000 Porsche 911 Turbo.
The scion of a successful Illinois-based jewelry company, the driver hopped the curb, killed both men, and drove off. LeVin abandoned the Porsche on an I-595 on-ramp and later tried to pin the blame on a friend.
LeVin already had a lengthy record of moving violations and cocaine possession; he was also involved in a 2006 high-speed chase in Chicago that hurt a cop and two pedestrians. Prosecutors asked Broward County Judge Barbara McCarthy to sentence the driver to ten years in prison.
But LeVin leveraged his parents' bank account. Elford and Watkinson's widows, cash-strapped and responsible for raising two and three children, respectively, filed a civil lawsuit against LeVin. The driver agreed to pay each family an undisclosed lump sum if they asked the court for a lowered sentence. The families agreed. In June 2011, appearing before McCarthy, LeVin chewed gum and declined to apologize in court.
The court gave him two years of house arrest followed by ten years of probation. LeVin did his time in an oceanfront condo. "The need for restitution does outweigh the need for prison," McCarthy told the Sun Sentinel at the time.
In March 2012, 5-year-old Yanelle Lucero was riding her tricycle near her home on NW 67th Street in Fort Lauderdale when she was struck by a white GMC van. Behind the wheel was 19-year-old Erik Garcia.
One of Garcia's friends riding shotgun got out of the van, picked up Lucero, and rushed the dying girl to her mother. Garcia took off on foot. He later called 911 to turn himself in.
The driver pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. At the sentencing in April, Lucero's mother, Katherine Diaz, clutching a wooden box containing her daughter's ashes, asked the judge to give Garcia the maximum sentence of 30 years.
"He had the opportunity to make a right decision and stop, swerve, or do whatever possible to avoid hurting my baby," the mother told the court. "But he chose not to. He just didn't care to avoid this tragedy."
The court, however, handed Garcia a 30-month sentence with credit for the 24 months he'd already been incarcerated, followed by deportation to his native Mexico.
But the highest-profile — and ultimately most consequential — instance of a motorist's fleeing the scene of a horrible accident happened in February 2010.
While piloting his bike over the Rickenbacker Causeway, Aaron Cohen, a 36-year-old married father of two, was run down. His riding partner was seriously injured.
Behind the wheel, Michele Traverso didn't even slow. Fresh off a night of drinking at Moe's in Coconut Grove, the 26-year-old sped home, where he hid his car beneath a tarp. At the time, Traverso's license was suspended due to a cocaine possession charge. Eighteen hours later, the driver turned himself in to police.
Traverso pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death and leaving the scene of an accident involving serious injury. In January 2013, a Miami-Dade judge gave him less than a year in jail.
It was the startled reaction at the sentencing from a courtroom squeezed tight with Cohen's friends and fellow Miami bike scenesters that set the stage for the changes in the law.
"As a society, what the judge said with that sentencing is that it's OK to kill somebody and leave as long as they're on a bicycle," says Mickey Witte, a local bike activist who was in the courtroom for the shocking outcome.
Witte and other concerned bikers began to collaborate on new legislation that would sew up the loophole. But they faced trouble in Tallahassee. "Originally, we wanted to have a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence," says Eli Stiers, a Miami trial attorney who helped craft the legislation. "There was a lot of opposition to that."
Eventually termed the Aaron Cohen Protection Act, the bill settled for a four-year minimum. It includes harsher punishments when the victims are "vulnerable road users" such as cyclists and pedestrians. The bill has been passed by the House and Senate. It awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
For Miguel Larrieu and Jorge Arrojas, the law is too little, too late. The pair came from prominent Cuban families that immigrated in the early 1960s. They met as 20-somethings and moved in together shortly thereafter, eventually building a house in Southwest Ranches. Arrojas, a retired postal worker, paid all the bills from the pair's joint bank account and cared for four Paso Fino horses on the two-acre property.
"He was my best friend and my lifelong companion," Larrieu says. "And this man ended all of that in less than 30 seconds."
The crash tore a hole through Larrieu's life. He's left trying to learn to pay the bills by himself as well as to check in daily on Arrojas' 88-year-old mother. And he waits for news on the investigation. And waits.
"I pray every day that justice will prevail," Larrieu says. "This person didn't even call an ambulance. He didn't even come to see how we were doing."
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