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."