Many Hit-and-Run Spectators, Few Witnesses | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Many Hit-and-Run Spectators, Few Witnesses

If you're on foot and a car kills you, chances are the cops will never find the driver. Hit-and-run collisions account for about 40 percent of pedestrian fatalities each year in Chicago. Of the 14 cases last year, the police department says it has closed just three with an arrest. What detectives usually lack are witnesses who can identify the motorist or the vehicle. Loved ones of a hit-and-run victim in the city's Pilsen neighborhood are trying to defy the odds. We report from our West Side bureau.

Toni López's best friend since 9th grade was Martha González.

LOPEZ: Here's a flier regarding reward information on the case.

López is talking with drivers waiting at a stop light. This is where González was killed last October.

LOPEZ: We're on the intersection of 18th and Halsted and she had the right of way to walk as a pedestrian.

The 36-year-old mother was in the crosswalk when a vehicle came from the south.

LOPEZ: He took the red light, didn't bother to stop, and took off.

The police department says it quickly identified and interviewed all the witnesses. Their recollections formed vague and inconsistent pictures of the vehicle and its driver.

López used the Web to search for more witnesses. On a photo-sharing site, she found images of González's body in the street.

LOPEZ: Pictures of her before police even had an opportunity to lay a blanket on top of her. How soon after the accident did you have to be here to take that picture? It was immediate. It made me realize there has to be somebody out here who knows something. A Tuesday afternoon during rush hour. Buses, traffic, students passing by, residents walking by. There's a café right here. How is it that we don't even have the color of the car?

So González's loved ones started canvassing the neighborhood. They raised $10,000 for a reward. Over the last nine months, they've handed out thousands of leaflets. Now they're exhibiting art about González in a Pilsen restaurant.

KUDELKA: It's to show that we haven't forgotten.

Andrew Kudelka is her widower.

KUDELKA: And when people see that endurance maybe they'll decide they can't wait anymore or they can't hold it -- whatever they have inside of them, if it's a sense of wanting to do something righteous at that point. Maybe it will come out. I want them to be able to feel what I feel (trails off): The emptiness.

But, as hard as González's friends and relatives have tried, no new witnesses have emerged. Experts say this isn't surprising.

MOSKOS: The reason witnesses don't want to come forward is (that) no one benefits when you enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Moskos is a City University of New York sociologist and a former Baltimore cop.

MOSKOS: The court system is so inefficient that someone who has a well-paying job doesn't want to take that time off from work. Someone who doesn't have a job doesn't want the hassle of going to court. There's a good chance it will get postponed.

Moskos says some witnesses won't step forward because they're hiding their own criminal activity.

MOSKOS: The problem is when non-criminals don't want to deal with police officers. That comes back to previous interactions with police -- just police officers being rude. The next time you just say, ‘I don't want anything to do with it. I'm sorry for the victim who got killed by the car but it's not my problem.'

González's family and friends wonder if there are other reasons. They point out some Pilsen residents avoid police contact because they're immigrants without documents. They wonder whether wealthier people who're gentrifying the neighborhood would care enough to get involved.

Pat O'Connor does not think that's what's going on here.

O'CONNOR: It's not real uncommon for victims' families to think more people have seen what took place.

O'Connor heads the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

O'CONNOR: Whoever is standing directly at that scene -- something like a hit and run -- that's a horrific situation that most people aren't used to. It shocks the senses. And they struggle telling you what the driver looked like, what the vehicle is, because they're actually fixated on the victim.

And then there are people in cars.

O'CONNOR: They're in their own world. You got people using cell phones. You got people with stereos on. They're not always aware what's going on.

The Chicago Police Department declined our request to interview the case's detectives. A spokesman says the witnesses were just not paying attention.

Toni López is still trying to find more.

LOPEZ: Here's a flier concerning reward information.

MITCHELL: Toni, so many months since the collision, why do you keep this up?

LOPEZ: For nobody to have any valid information is extremely difficult for me to swallow and accept.

López thinks there must be someone out there who can help find the driver that killed Martha González.

Anyone with information regarding the incident can call the Martha Gonzalez Memorial Committee hotline at (312) 203-4986.

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