- John Greenfield
- Still from speed camera footage released by the Chicago Police Department showing Christopher Sanchez being fatally struck.
The hit-and-run crash that killed Christopher Sanchez while he was crossing Milwaukee Avenue in Avondale last month was a tragedy, but it wasn't an anomaly. According to data released by the city, between 2005 and 2014, two out of five Chicago pedestrian fatalities involved drivers who fled, leaving their victims dying in the street.
Local authorities and traffic safety advocates aren't certain why so many Chicago motorists fail to render aid after they strike people on foot. But they agree that more needs to be done to reduce the number of fatal pedestrian crashes in Chicago, including hit-and-runs.
Sanchez, 34, worked as an auto mechanic and lived with his parents on the 3100 block of North Sawyer Avenue. Nicknamed "Guerito," Mexican slang for a light-complexioned person, he's remembered as a hard-working and kind-hearted man by family and friends. "Chris could be shy, but he was always very helpful, and he often had a big smile on his face," recalls his cousin, Mimi Osoria. "His nephews and nieces adored him."
Sanchez had suffered from insomnia since his mother's death from cancer a year ago, according to Osoria's sister Maria Cartage. She says that early in the morning on Sunday, February 21, Sanchez strolled a mile west of his home to his regular tavern to have a beer or two. "He was trying to do the responsible thing by walking instead of driving to the bar and, ironically, that's what got him killed," she says.
After leaving the bar at about 5:20 AM Sanchez was heading west across the north leg of the Belmont and Milwaukee intersection, walking in the crosswalk. Cartage says he may have been going to a nearby 24-hour Walgreens for cigarettes, or else to El Gallo Bravo taqueria, at the southwest corner of the intersection.
Speed camera footage released by the Chicago Police Department shows a white Ford SUV heading northwest on Milwaukee with the green light. Sanchez is already in the middle of the northwest-bound lane as the driver plows into him, apparently without braking. Sanchez was thrown 30 feet into the air and was pronounced dead soon afterwards, according to authorities.
"[The driver] was heartless for not stopping," Osoria says. "He could have provided first aid, or at least called 911 to help my cousin."
Sanchez was one of at least six people who were injured or killed last month while on foot in the Chicago region by drivers who left the scene, according to reports from local news outlets. Three of the crashes occurred within the city, and all but two of the victims died.
"[The driver] was heartless for not stopping. He could have provided first aid, or just called 911 to help my cousin."
—Mimi Osoria, Chris Sanchez’s cousin
The most egregious case, from a law-enforcement perspective, was that of Izah Malik. The 26-year-old woman was struck and killed by a female driver on Golf Road in Morton Grove, according to authorities. About a half hour after the deadly crash, the motorist drove to a nearby courthouse and told police she thought she might have hit something, but claimed it had been too dark to see what she hit, despite the fact that her car was equipped with headlights. Inexplicably, no charges were filed.
"If you can't charge for hit-and-run, that's ridiculous," the victim's cousin Faisal Malik told the Chicago Tribune. "If we can't protect people who are just walking down the street, there's something wrong."
Statistics show it's all too common for drivers to flee after killing people on foot or bicycles in Chicago. (Disclosure: it's common enough that even my editor at the Reader was the victim of a hit-and-run crash in 2008.)
Between 2005 and 2014, 41 percent of fatal pedestrian crashes and 22 percent of deadly bike collisions involved hit-and-run motorists, according to numbers released by the Chicago Department of Transportation, based on Illinois Department of Transportation crash data. (Between 2010 and 2014, the hit-and-run rate for fatal pedestrian crashes was 45 percent.)
Moreover, Chicago's hit-and-run rate for fatal crashes involving vulnerable road users may be higher than that of peer cities. According to news reports tracked by Streetsblog New York, there were 133 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in that city last year. Twenty-four of them involved a driver who fled, for an 18 percent hit-and-run rate.
Meanwhile, Chicago saw 53 fatal pedestrian and bike fatalities in 2015, according to preliminary data compiled by the Chicago Police Department. Fifteen of them involved hit-and-run-drivers, for a 28 percent hit-and-run rate.
Representatives from Chicago's police and transportation departments declined to speculate on why our city's hit-and-run rate is so high relative to New York.
But CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey noted that, while all traffic fatalities are tragic losses that should have been avoided, hit-and-runs can compound the tragedy. "It can mean that it takes longer to get medical care to the victims, and it certainly adds to the pain that is experienced by the loved ones of the victims," he said via e-mail.
Claffey added that the city has set a goal of zero traffic fatalities and is participating in the recently announced and aptly named Vision Zero Focus Cities program. As part of this initiative, transportation, police, and public health officials from ten cities, as well as mayor's office staff, will share strategies for eliminating traffic deaths.
Jason Jenkins, a crash victim advocate with the Active Transportation Alliance, details several factors might motivate drivers to flee a crash site. "It could be that they're under the influence, they have no license or insurance, they're not in the country legally, or there's a warrant out for their arrest," he says. "Even with a clean driving record, people sometimes make a split-second, fight-or-flight decision that they later regret."
Jenkins argues that the best strategy for reducing hit-and-runs and other types of crashes is a holistic approach that includes safer street design and increased traffic enforcement, plus educating the public about the consequences of unsafe and unethical driving. He also argues that Chicago, the suburbs, and the state of Illinois should consider stricter penalties for motorists who flee crashes.
Unlike many hit-and-run perpetrators, it appears that the driver who killed Christopher Sanchez has been caught.
"Even with a clean driving record, people sometimes make a split-second, fight-or-flight decision that they later regret."
—Active Trans victim advocate Jason Jenkins
The SUV's plate number wasn't visible in the speed cam footage. But according to Sanchez's cousin Maria Cartage, the police received an anonymous tip with an address where the vehicle was parked, on the 5100 block of West Patterson in Portage Park. Days after the crash, the police found the SUV with a damaged passenger-side hood and headlight, still smeared with the victim's blood, in front of the home of Felix Fajardo.
Fajardo, a 33-year-old Honduran national and unemployed laborer, admitted to striking Sanchez, according to prosecutors. He faces a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving a death and is currently being held in lieu of $100,000 bail. His next court hearing is scheduled for March 18.
"It's absolutely a relief for us that a suspect has been apprehended because it brings some closure to us," says Cartage's sister Mimi Osoria. She adds that a GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for funeral expenses and to help pay Sanchez's father's recently hiked property taxes. "One of the last things Chris said to his dad was, 'Don't worry about the property taxes, I'll pay them,'" Osoria says.
"We're just looking forward to justice for Chris," Cartage says. "Whether you're walking or driving, you shouldn't have to suffer the consequences for someone else's lack of judgment." v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.