Hit-skip crashes create challenges for investigators


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The troopers in Knox County arrived at the crash scene, the one where someone had hit and killed a motorcyclist but didn’t stop, and found a crucial piece of evidence the fleeing vehicle had left behind: a running board.

It had a manufacturer’s part number stamped on it, so that helped investigators to quickly narrow down that they could be looking for a 2014 or 2015 GMC Sierra. But many vehicle accessories are interchangeable, so they couldn’t be too laser-focused or rule anything out, said Lt. G.S. Grewal, commander of the State Highway Patrol’s Mount Gilead post, which handled the June 2 crash that killed 20-year-old Jordan Pauley.

The crash happened just before midnight on a Thursday, and the patrol immediately spread the word that they were looking for a white, full-sized pickup with visible damage. Before the weekend was over, an anonymous tip led authorities to a truck — it turned out to be a 2016 Chevrolet Silverado — and a suspect.

The case underscores some of the challenges of solving the crime that is among the most frustrating and difficult for law enforcement: a fatal hit-skip crash.

“We deal with the CSI effect from television. People think we get a paint chip at a scene and an hour later, we have the case solved,” said Lt. Christopher Kinn, commander of the State Highway Patrol’s crash reconstruction unit. “There are few things more heinous than when someone leaves the scene of a fatality. Yet it often takes the public’s help for us to be able to hold someone accountable.”

The statistics illustrate how difficult it is to solve a hit and run. Last year, out of 45 fatal hit-skips statewide, 22 went unsolved, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety data. During a period ranging from January 2011 through June 20 of this year, 88 of 215 fatal hit-skips remained unsolved.

Factor in property-damage crashes and those where someone was injured and the numbers swell. In that same five and a half year period, 73 percent of the cases go unsolved.

This year, the numbers are on pace to improve. Through June 20, 10 of 14 fatal hit/skip crashes have been solved, the data shows.

And this year’s lower number come at a time when Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law earlier this month legislation that creates new, higher penalties for those who leave the scene of a fatal or serious-injury crash.

Until now, failing to stop after a crash that resulted in someone being hurt was a fifth-degree felony, which meant the maximum penalty was a year in prison. Fleeing the scene of a fatal crash was a third-degree felony, which could carry a prison sentence but not as much as many prosecutors would have liked.

State Rep. Brian Hill, a Zanesville Republican, and Ohio Sen. John Eklund, a Republican from Geauga County, pushed for the changes. Fleeing the scene of a crash that causes serious injury or death is now a second-degree felony, which could carry as much as an 8-year sentence.

It closes what safe-driving advocates saw as a loophole: an impaired driver who left the scene, only to be caught later when they could not then be tested for drugs or alcohol, was likely to face a lesser charge by doing so.

The new classifications, known as “Brandon’s Law,” eliminate that.

“This way, there will be no benefit for leaving the crime scene. Stay and call 911 and try to get the person help,” Hill said. “I don’t know if this will be deterrent, but I hope it means more justice on the other end.”

The law was named after Brandon Pethtel, a Guernsey County 15-year-old who died in April 2013 after a being hit by a pickup driver who fled the scene. The drive eventually was caught, and told authorities been been drinking and using drugs, but still faced a lighter charge and sentence than prosecutors thought he should have. Pethtel’s family took up a petition and went to Hill for help to get the new laws and punishments in place.

The challenges to these cases already are many, and anything that encourages the drivers to remain at the scene helps, Kinn said. The physical evidence doesn’t lie: tire tracks (which are like fingerprints; no two are identical), car parts, paint chips, and the location and type of injuries to the victims tell investigators a lot.

But then they still have to track down the vehicle.

“It is about casting a wide net,” Kinn said. “In a hit-skip crash you want to get the word out to as many people as possible as soon as you can. That vehicle had to go somewhere, and someone is going to see it.”

He said vehicle repair shops can be helpful, but it often comes down to someone doing the right thing.

“Someone sees that vehicle, or at the very least sees suspicious behavior: ‘Hey, he is putting his car in the garage now and he never does that,’ or ‘I heard about this crash and I see the neighbor’s bumper is damaged,'” Kinn said. “Do you turn in a tip or mind or own business? It all comes down to ‘What’s your moral compass? Do you do the right thing?'”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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