Maribel Ornelas has something seared into her mind that she can’t forget. It’s the sight of her brother when she had to identify his body at the hospital after he died in a hit-and-run crash.
“It really hurt,” Ornelas said. “I still can’t take the image out of my head. I just can’t.”
Her brother, Nicolas Garcia, 36, was riding his motorcycle on July 4 when an SUV rear-ended him. He was thrown into a pole and killed.
Chicago Police Department data suggest there is a strong chance that Garcia’s case will never be solved.
The city has had at least 102 fatal hit-and-run crashes since the start of 2014, according to the data, obtained by WBEZ using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The data show that just 46 of those cases have been “cleared” — the police parlance for solved. That’s 45%. In several of the solved cases, the offenders turned themselves in.
It means a Chicago driver who fatally injures someone, leaves the scene and does not look back will probably get away with it.
A search for the driver
Garcia, called “Chato” by his relatives and friends, worked in a warehouse and had a 6-year-old son.
What Garcia loved most in life, according to his sisters, were his boy and his motorcycle club. At his burial, members of the club honored him by bringing their bikes into the cemetery and filling the air with the smoke and deafening screeches of burning tire rubber.
Immediately after the crash that killed Garcia, members of the club combed the neighborhood for the SUV that hit him.
Within hours, the bikers found a black SUV with front-end damage just a few blocks from the crash site. The police responded.
“They had the yellow tape around the truck,” Ornelas said.
Officers took the plate numbers. They canvassed the area. They towed the car away and talked about getting fingerprints, the family said.
But days went by and the driver was not caught. And, Garcia’s relatives say, the officer would not return their calls. The lack of information from the police was maddening.
“Are they in their offices relaxing?” Ornelas said. “I believe they’re not even doing their job.”
Communication from police
Public attention on policing in Chicago usually focuses on murders. And discussions of the department’s low murder clearance rate often revolve around issues of trust.
Issues of trust also come up after hit-and-run deaths.
If the police are not making progress in an investigation, just hearing from officers can make a difference to the victim’s relatives, according to lawyer Michael Keating, whose practice includes a lot of hit-and-run cases.
“The common complaint of the families — and the truth is sometimes that’s how they end up calling me as a private attorney — is that they don’t know what’s going on,” Keating said. “Their concern, whether true or not, is that nothing is happening because they haven’t heard anything and they haven’t received any updates.”
Keating points out the family is already experiencing the trauma of losing their loved one and knowing the police have not caught the driver.
“In addition to that, they have this pain and frustration because they feel like they’re being ignored,” he said. “Even if that’s not what the intent is, they’re left with that feeling.”
And when relatives are not hearing from the police after an unsolved hit-and-run death, Keating said the feeling reverberates to their friends — and beyond.
“That contributes to the feeling of distrust between segments of the public and the Chicago Police Department,” Keating said. “They feel like the police aren’t really there to serve and protect them.”
A sister finds the investigator
Frustrated with the police investigation, Garcia’s friends and relatives tried to gather leads on their own. They publicized the case through social media. They went door-to-door for video footage.
One night last week, another of the victim’s sisters, Veronica Garcia, went down to CPD’s Major Accident Investigation Unit to find the officer in charge of the case. To her, it seemed the family was doing more to solve the crime than the Police Department.
“We were getting impatient,” she said.
Garcia, the sister, said the officer told her there was nothing he could do without more information.
WBEZ asked the Police Department’s press office about the case’s status and why the investigator was not keeping in closer touch with the family. The office referred the questions to a lieutenant in the Major Accident Investigation Unit. The lieutenant did not respond.
Reached by phone Monday night, the investigator himself said he could not talk about the case or about his communication with the family. He referred the questions back to the press office.
On Tuesday evening, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi sent an emailed statement insisting that the Major Accidents unit has kept the family up-to-date.
“If the family has any complaints or feels that their case is not getting the attention it deserves, we will gladly look into that,” Guglielmi said in the statement.
“They can also file an independent complaint with COPA,” he said, referring to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a city agency outside the Police Department.
“But our major accidents traffic specialists are nationally recognized for their investigative skills and they take these cases very seriously,” Guglielmi said.
Three weeks since the hit-and-run crash that killed Nicolas Garcia, Ornelas said she expects something from the specialists assigned to locate the SUV driver.
“I want to hear from them every day that [they] are working on the case so we can find the person responsible,” Ornelas said.