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HIT & RUN: THE DRIVERS, THEIR VICTIMS AND ONE LOOPHOLE IN THE LAW

Posted August 20th, 2013 in Archives by Billy Jensen

Originally Published in January, 2005

Messiah Lovelady was killed by a hit and run driver in 2004.

Messiah Lovelady was killed by a hit and run driver in 2004.

For the family of Nine-year-old Messiah Lovelady, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in May, 2004, it’s a light-colored mini van.

 

For Anthony Savarese, it’s every dark-colored sedan, his eyes darting to the grill in hopes of finding the telltale front-end damage that resulted from the impact of striking and killing his 14-year-old daughter Jessica on a road in Franklin Square.

 

In a hit-and-run crime, you don’t have a face to hate. Four wheels and an engine become your boogeyman.

 

Last year, three children were killed by hit-and-run drivers on the roads of Long Island. Only one arrest has been made.

 

The nature of the crime implies speed, blink-of-an-eye action that renders eyewitness accounts shaky at best. In Messiah’s case, he was killed by a light blue or green or champagne-colored van. With Jessica, it was just a large dark car. No one saw the license plate number. No one saw the driver.

 

Often the only clues are the remnants that break off from the car after it hits flesh. And for detectives, that is sometimes all they’ve got. For Messiah, pieces of a front grill and amber lens from the passenger-side turning signal/parking lamp point to a 1991-95 Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge minivan. There are about 15,000 of these vans in western Suffolk/eastern Nassau alone. For Jessica, a piece of a headlight points to a 1989-91 Ford Taurus. There are more than 10,000 Ford Tauruses in Nassau and Queens.

 

At least it’s something.

 

In a study published in 2003 by the National Center For Statistics and Analysis and sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 18 percent of pedestrian fatalities in single-vehicle crashes from 1998 to 2001 were hit-and-run. In 2001, 4,882 pedestrians were struck and killed, 781 the result of a hit-and-run. You can see a running tally of hit-and-run victims in the United States on websites like www.deadlyroads.com. Some days, there have been three, four, five people left dying on a road as a car drove away into the horizon. The variety of the victims, as well as the variety of the drivers (when they’re caught), illustrates that this is a crime that can happen to anyone who crosses a street or gets in a car.

 

MESSIAH AND HIS SNACKS

Messiah Lovelady made everyone smile. Bursting with energy while still respectful of his elders, the third-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School shared a room at home with his two brothers, Aquines, 11, and Christopher, 14. At 4:45 p.m. on May 12, Messiah and Aquines were walking home from Pete’s Deli, where Messiah had purchased $2.25 worth of cakes and cookies.

 

One block away from the crosswalk on Straight Path Road, a four-lane road with a 40 mph speed limit, the two decided to cross.

“[Police] said the light must have been green,” says Douglas Lovelady. Two vehicles were traveling in the left lane, going north, as the two crossed from east to west. The first vehicle stopped short when the driver saw the two boys. Seeing the brake lights of the vehicle in front of it, the second driver swerved into the right lane and struck Messiah.

 

Witnesses say the van made no attempt to stop and there were no skid marks at the point of impact. The van then made several turns, as if trying to evade capture.

 

Just like that, a little boy gone. A happy boy, excited about digging into his snacks. Replaced by some bits of plastic on the street.

 

Aquines ran to his house and got his mother. Douglas Lovelady arrived at the scene as they were putting Messiah in the ambulance.

 

Witnesses, including a man outside the deli, a homeless woman and Aquines, all gave varying accounts of the van’s color.

 

“There’s usually some transfer of paint to the clothing [of the victim],” says Suffolk County First Squad Detective Sgt. Kenneth Williams. “This time, there was not.”

 

Williams has been in touch with numerous auto repair dealers, sending out bulletins to be on the lookout for a light-colored Plymouth Voyager. He says he received many leads immediately after the incident, but all went nowhere.

 

Auto body shops are often the last line of defense for catching hit-and-run drivers. That’s how the suspect in the most recent hit-and-run fatality of a child on Long Island was caught. On Oct. 23, Karin Chirichella, 43, of East Northport, dropped off her 2000 black Suzuki Gran Vitari at Fairfield Auto Collision in Huntington Station, claiming she hit a tree on her way home from a restaurant. The owner of the shop, Mark Dammer, noticed the irregular damage and telephoned Suffolk police, who had put out a Crime Stoppers bulletin describing a dark pickup or SUV which had struck and killed 14-year-old Charles McAuliffe as he rode his bike on a Greenlawn street a week earlier. Dammer said he called the police, “not thinking it was the car,” but his hunch paid off. Dammer says that McAuliffe’s family came by and bought everyone at the station lunch in gratitude for their vigilance. Chirichella was arrested, and could receive up to four years in jail on the charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. She was also charged with driving while intoxicated—although she was arrested a week later, sources familiar with these types of investigations say intoxicated hit-and-runners may actually visit another bar after the incident, creating witnesses to their behavior.

 

At the scene of the McAuliffe accident, detectives had found damage that helped them create the profile of the car and put out the bulletin. But in Messiah’s case, the van had sustained damage “to the degree that one wouldn’t necessarily have to seek repairs,” says Williams. The grill and turning lamp could have been picked up at any junkyard and replaced.

 

When a hit-and-run driver is caught, the same two excuses are often given: “I didn’t know I hit anything,” or, “I thought I hit a dog/a tree/something in the road.” But according to Williams, there are three factors in Messiah’s case that would render those excuses moot: 1) Messiah flew up in the air after impact. “At least an object would have become visible” through the windshield, Williams says; 2) The amount of publicity the case has received would have made any citizen realize that they had passed through that intersection on that day, at that time; 3) Witnesses say that right after the accident, the “vehicle made several turns, probably in an effort to avoid detection,” says Williams.

 

AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY CRIME

Anyone who drives a car can kill someone. One search for a CD, one daydream, one handheld phone call, and you end someone’s life. It could happen, and has happened, to people from literally every walk of life, from teenagers to grandmothers, from Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil to first lady Laura Bush.

 

Hit-and-run accidents also run the gamut, from Bishop Thomas O’Brien, to Halle Berry, to professional athletes like Boston Celtic Charles Smith or Dallas Cowboy Dwayne Goodrich, both of whom killed two on the roads before fleeing. In fiction, Benicio Del Toro’s born-again Christian decides to confess to his deed in the film 21 Grams, while Marcia Cross’ anal-retentive Bree Van De Kamp of television’s Desperate Housewives shields her son by getting rid of the car after he runs over a neighbor. Then there’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby, perhaps literature’s first hit-and-run villain.

 

Hit-and-run drivers are often upstanding citizens who have never broken the law. They did not make a decision to wield a gun or a knife, objects whose main purpose is to maim or kill. They used a car, one and a half tons of metal and plastic that have killed 190,000 pedestrians in the United States since 1975. It is an equal-opportunity crime, for both victim and perpetrator.

 

Driving a car is a very insular activity. Sure, you notice other people when they cut you off or drive too slow, but for the most part, you are alone, traveling in your own climate-controlled pod with a sound system, communication devices and now, television and DVD players.

 

Ask yourself: What would you do if you hit somebody? Of course, you would stop. But so many people, people just like you, do not.

 

Bishop O’Brien, head of the Phoenix Roman Catholic Diocese, said he thought he had hit a dog or that a rock had struck his windshield when he hit and killed pedestrian Jim Reed last year in Arizona. Dance teacher Jennifer Porter fled after she struck four children, killing two, as they crossed a Tampa street. Porter’s attorney said she was “frightened beyond imagination,” before coming forward five days later. Petty thief Orlando Fuentes, 25, struck and killed J.D. Daniels on his 13th birthday on a Massachusetts road in 1997. Fuentes knew he hit him, backed up, drove away, returned to the scene, then drove away again, ditching his car near his girlfriend’s house. Steven “Panama” Barnes said he fell asleep and thought he hit a sign when he allegedly struck and killed 45-year-old Patricia Kwiatkowski as she jogged on a Colorado highway in August. Robert Franke was drunk when he hit a man lying in a St. Petersburg road in 1997. Franke drove to a car wash and made his 9-year-old daughter, who was in the car, pledge to never tell. Ana Bik thought she “hit a pothole” when she struck and killed Michael Adasavage as the 13-year-old rode his scooter in Bucks County, Pa. in February. Seventy-six-year-old Marjorie Speranza said she didn’t remember anything when she struck and killed pedestrian Susan Quigley last October in Wisconsin. Then there’s Chante Mallard of Texas, who struck a homeless man and drove home with him lodged in her windshield. He died in her garage the next day, then Mallard dumped his body in a park. She claims she didn’t know what to do.

 

There are reasons people don’t stop. They may be wanted for another crime. They may be driving a stolen vehicle, be an illegal immigrant, or have contraband in the car. They may think they can live with the guilt and get away with it. They may be in the car with someone they shouldn’t be with.

 

But traffic safety advocates believe the chief reason drivers flee is alcohol. And in New York State, it is actually in their best interest—legally, not karmically or morally—for intoxicated drivers who get into accidents to keep driving.

 

HIT, RUN AND HIDE

Whether they’re aware of the law or not, hit-and-run drivers who are intoxicated are actually rewarded by the law for running away instead of staying at the scene.

 

Drunk drivers who flee the scene of an accident face smaller penalties (a Class E felony, up to four years in prison) than if the driver stays and waits for the police to arrive, takes a Breathalyzer test and is proven to be intoxicated (a Class D felony, up to seven years in prison). Earlier this year, elementary school music teacher JoAnna Berggren, 29, was riding with her husband William in their 2001 Mitsubishi Galant on a road in Shirley when a white Jeep Cherokee ran a stop sign and struck the car, killing Berggren. The driver of the Jeep then pulled the car over and fled on foot. The Jeep had been stolen from a Verizon company repair yard in Holbrook earlier that week, the Verizon logo painted over. The driver was identified as Chester Cunningham, 39, who had a history of DWI convictions. If Cunningham was drunk this time, he will escape homicide charges because he fled.

 

It is a loophole that many lawmakers and advocates have been aware of for years, but has yet to be closed.

 

For seven years, the New York State Senate has passed a bill sponsored by Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), which would make fleeing the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury or death punishable by up to seven years in jail, along with a $2,500 to $5,000 fine. Last year, when the Assembly received the bill, Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) decided to make his own bill, which passed and is now sitting in the Senate. The difference between the bills is that Marcellino’s Senate bill calls for a Class D felony across the board—for accidents resulting in death or serious injury—while Weisenberg’s Assembly bill calls for a Class D felony for death and only a Class E for serious injury. “Everybody wanted this goddamn bill passed,” says Weisenberg, who said he would go Class D across the board if the Senate passes his bill.

 

“It’s just a no-brainer,” says Kirk Ives,legislative director for Marcellino. “We do this year after year.” After a volley of calls by the Press to both politicians, Weisenberg pledged to try and work out a compromise and close the loophole that helps drunk drivers who flee the scene. Weisenberg called Ives and told him he was willing to go Class D across the board. Both offices pledged they would fight to get it done in early 2005.

 

“Most hit-and-runs are drunk drivers,” says Deena Cohen, president of the Long Island Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “We’re basically giving them permission to leave the scene and sober up.”

 

Cohen actually addressed the Assembly last year. “They were all nodding their heads, and still [the bill] sits there.”

 

JESSICA AND THE SLEEPOVER

 

Five days before Messiah Lovelady was killed crossing a street in broad daylight, Jessica Savarese was killed crossing a street at night.

 

Jessica (known as Jayy to her friends) and her two friends, Tiffany Zinnanti, 15, and Melissa Fick, 15, left a pizza parlor close to 11 p.m. on May 7, and were walking along the south side of Hempstead Turnpike. Jessica, a freshman at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, was going to a sleepover at Melissa’s house.

 

Near Claflin Boulevard, the three girls decided to cross. They got to the double yellow line, when Melissa and Tiffany noticed a car going fast in the westbound lane. They stopped, but Jessica kept walking and broke into a run to try and make it to the curb. Her friends watched in horror as the car struck her. Her body was thrown into the air and landed on the side of the road. The girl with the million dollar smile, who loved the color purple and planned to go to college in Florida, was most probably killed instantly.

 

There were no tire marks indicating the car even braked. It just kept going.

 

Damage at the scene included a broken passenger side headlight assembly directional, common on the Ford Taurus sedan or wagon 1989-91 models. (But those headlights can be retrofitted to other years.) Detective Gary Ferucci of the Nassau Police Department says that based on the significant damage, whoever hit Jessica would know they hit something.

 

Headed by Ferucci, Nassau police gave flyers to patrol units, fire departments and taxi companies. Anthony Savarese purchased a list of auto body shops within a 30-mile radius of the crash. “I went out and did my own mailing,” he says, flooding businesses with fliers to be on the lookout for the car.

 

In June, Savarese held a press conference near the intersection where Jessica was killed, offering $30,000 for information along with Crime Stoppers’ $2,000 reward. A new flier included a picture of the type of car in question, along with a mark noting where the damage would be noticeable.

 

When told of the McAuliffe arrest, based on the tip from the repair shop, Savarese said, “I was hoping for that same kind of luck.”

 

ALWAYS HOPE

Even though eight months have passed, that doesn’t mean Jessica’s killer will not be found—in fact, there is even a fresh lead. “Over the last three or four days, we’ve come upon a vehicle we’re looking at,” says Ferucci. “It’s from out of state…. It’s in the ballpark.

 

“This is not a cold case,” he adds, quick to point out the case of Marjorie Cordero, who was killed on a Greenvale street in January 2001. Through dogged police work, detectives, armed with pieces left at the scene, found the car, a Mercury Cougar, and its owner, Glen Cove resident Robert Mikols, more than three months after the accident. (Mikols received six months in jail.)

 

There’s always the chance that guilt will become too much to live with for the driver. Richard Marcus of Coram came forward eight months after striking and killing Jeremy Springer, as the 17-year-old rode his bicycle in Coram in November 2001. (The only charge the prosecution could make stick was leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, a misdemeanor. Marcus received a small fine and was ordered to perform 280 hours of community service.)

 

Ferucci is putting the finishing touches on a program called SAFE, Shields Against Fatal Emulation, which will attempt to “raise awareness among young drivers—and pedestrains—that the decisions they are making could be catastrophic.” The program could launch this year.

 

This fall, Anthony Savarese had planned to announce he was upping the reward to $50,000 to catch his daughter’s killer, but the ordeal has taken its toll. “Honestly, I’m kind of worn out,” he says.

 

At the intersection of Claflin and Hempstead Turnpike, a purple-drenched memorial to Jessica still stands, over 100 messages from friends written in Magic Marker on a utility pole. Messages like “I know you are watching us,” “We will never forget” and “The emptiness inside is killing me.”

 

Around this time Messiah would be playing football and Yu-gi-oh! cards and practicing his wrestling moves with brother Christopher.

 

“He wanted to become a wrestler like me,” says Christopher, who is on the Wyandanch wrestling team and had started to teach Messiah moves. “This was going to be his first year.”

 

After this story was published, it forced the lawmakers to get the law passed.

If you have any information regarding the death of Messiah Lovelady, call Suffolk Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS. All calls are confidential and you do not have to appear in court.

 

If you have any information regarding the death of Jessica Savarese, call Nassau Crime Stoppers at 1-800-244-TIPS. All calls are confidential and you do not have to appear in court. You can also call Det. Ferucci directly at 516-573-7788.