Victims and their families don't understand how someone could drive away
By SCOTT DAUGHERTY, Staff Writer - Hometown Annapolis.
County police have released this surveillance photo of the vehicle in the Aug. 24 hit-and-run incident that killed James Schreiber Jr., 38, of Pasadena. It is believed the vehicle had a temporary, dealer or transporter tag attached to the left side of the rear tailgate just below the rear window.
Manuel Minchev doesn't remember how his right arm came to be in a sling.
One minute he was riding his bike in Annapolis with two friends. The next he was in a Baltimore hospital bed with a broken clavicle.
"It was strange," recalled the Bulgarian college student who came to Maryland earlier this year to work as a lifeguard. "I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' "
What Minchev learned - like a startling number of other county residents in the past few months - was that he had been a hit-and-run victim. The motorist who knocked the 20-year-old off his bicycle Aug. 23 on Forest Drive didn't stop to offer help or even see if he was OK.
Local police departments acknowledged a recent uptick in such incidents in the past three months.
There have been two fatal hit-and-runs in Anne Arundel County since July 14 - plus at least four crashes that resulted in serious injuries.
"This is definitely an anomaly this year," said Sgt. Brent Weaver, one of eight officers tasked with investigating fatal and other serious traffic accidents for the county Police Department. "It is an unusual event, definitely."
Police can't pinpoint a reason behind the recent surge. Detectives hypothesize it might be the bad economy prompting more people to drive without insurance or without proper registration.
Exact statistics on how many hit-and-run wrecks happen a year in Anne Arundel County are not readily available. Computerized records maintained by the county Police Department regarding fatal wrecks were significantly different from paper records maintained by the department's Traffic Safety unit. The disparities draw into question the accuracy of the department's other computerized records for personal injury hit-and-run crashes, which showed about 90 each of the past four years.
Accident investigators and prosecutors said they have no reason to believe the recent rash will continue.
"It's too soon to call it a trend," said Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler, who prosecutes the bulk of the county's automobile manslaughter cases. "I'm hoping this is just an unusual coincidence. Hopefully we won't see this next year."
'Why did it happen?'
For those injured in hit-and-runs - or left to carry on after the death of a loved one - the question is less "why so many?" and more "why did this happen?" They don't understand how anyone could drive away from an injured person.
"This is all very foreign to me," said Jenna Schreiber, whose husband, James, was killed Aug. 24 while he prepared to tow a vehicle from the side of Route 100 near Oakwood Road in Pasadena. "It is just deplorable. I simply do not understand it. I cannot perceive the mentality it takes (to drive away)."
There is no easy answer to explain why people flee the scene of the wrecks they were involved in, police, attorneys and psychologists said.
Some are simply in shock and don't realize what they have done until they are a mile or two down the road. Others panic because they are drunk or driving without a license.
In general, experts dismiss the "I thought I hit a deer" excuse voiced by many people eventually arrested for hit-and-run wrecks.
"It's case by case, but it's mostly crap," said Dr. Thomas Dalby, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary who co-wrote a scholarly article in 2008 about the psychology of hit-and-run. "If you hit a deer, wouldn't you still stop? Wouldn't you see if it's all right? Wouldn't you see if your vehicle was all right?"
Police understand how unanswered questions can gnaw at victims and their families. With the help of witnesses, officers work hard to give them answers - tracking down security video from around the accident scene, visiting dealerships to identify vehicle parts left behind and contacting repair shops to see if any suspicious jobs roll up to their doors.
"Sometimes it is very difficult. We sometimes have nothing to go on," Weaver said. "It really helps if we have eyewitness testimony ... they are key. It is a cooperative effort between us and them."
Since Jan. 1, 2008, there have been nine fatal hit-and-run crashes in the county - resulting in the deaths of 10 people. Seven of the dead were pedestrians, two were riding a motorcycle and one was riding a bicycle.
Detectives with the county and state police departments have been able to solve about half those cases.
Of the seven fatal crashes that occurred before July 12 of this year, police located four drivers.
"We have a pretty good closure rate, believe it or not," Weaver said.
But both of the county's most recent fatal hit-and-runs - and three of the county's four recent serious injury hit-and-runs - remain unsolved.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys contacted by The Capital last week urged drivers involved in hit-and-run crashes to turn themselves in to police.
While simply leaving the scene of a fatal accident carries the same maximum sentence as automobile manslaughter, judges usually go easier on motorists who surrender, they said.
"There is no good-case scenario ... (but) I think you get some benefit if you own up to it," said Ted Staples, a prominent Annapolis attorney who has represented several clients in hit-and-run cases.
He advised against staying quiet, because police will never give up.
"They are going to come find you," he said, arguing the best bet is to contact an attorney and arrange to give a statement. "It may take awhile, but they will find you."
If police can link a driver to a fatal hit-and-run crash, that does not mean he or she will receive a significant jail sentence.
In June, Thomas Leonard Judge III, 22, of Annapolis Cove outside Annapolis, received a probation before judgement for the Jan. 1, 2010, death of a man killed while walking across Bay Ridge Road near Edgewood Road.
Judge turned himself in to police the next day and prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to a reduced charge of failing to render aid to the victim as part of a plea agreement. He was placed on one year of unsupervised probation and ordered to complete 50 hours of community service.
About a year earlier, though, Matthew Evan Norwood, 27, of Linthicum, received one of the longest sentences ever handed down in the county in an automobile manslaughter case. After pleading guilty in the Aug. 22, 2009, hit-and-run death of a woman walking to church in Glen Burnie, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison with three years suspended.
Roessler, the prosecutor, said each case is different.
He noted Norwood went to court with a criminal record and an "egregious" set of facts that placed him at fault in the woman's death. Judge, however, had no record and turned himself in to police. He added that Judge probably wouldn't have been charged with any crime if he had stayed at the scene. The victim in that case was intoxicated and crossing the street at night outside a crosswalk.
"Sometimes they are driving away from an automobile manslaughter and sometimes they are not," Roessler said. "That's going to be a big difference (at sentencing.)"
In interviews over the past month, several hit-and-run victims and the family members of those who were killed asked the public to help them gain some closure. Someone, they said, helped repair the damage or heard a friend's confession.
"If anyone knows anything, they shouldn't be silent. They should do the right thing," said Ziad Sabra, whose brother, Ghassen, was killed 15 months ago on Route 50 while checking on traffic-counting equipment.
"We need someone from the public to come forward and point us in the right direction," added Jenna Schreiber. "Someone knows what happened."
Until someone comes forward in his case, Minchev - who is preparing to return home to Bulgaria in a few weeks - can only wait and wonder who was responsible.
"I can't believe this happened to me," said the rising junior at the University of Ruse in Bulgaria. "I can't do nothing with my right hand and he is at home. Maybe drinking a beer. Maybe watching TV."