In Focus: Hit and Run

February 08, 2007 11:00 pm
 (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
(The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

Two hit-and-run accidents occurring only a few weeks apart — one that killed a Del Norte High School student and one that seriously injured another student — underscore an uncommon but seemingly mounting issue in Del Norte County: the unsolvability of hit-and-run accidents.

Josh Lacy, a 15-year-old Del Norte High freshman who wrestled and played football, died Jan. 13 of major injuries after a vehicle struck him and fled the day before on U.S. Hwy. 101 near Arrowhead Road.

Less than two months earlier, Del Norte High senior Nico Askew was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident that left him in a coma for nine days and on life support for a week.

And in March 2005, a driver ran over 24-year-old Josh Salter on Northcrest Drive shortly after midnight. The driver and vehicle were never found, and the CHP said it's exhausted all leads and clues.

The three cases highlight what appears to be a budding trend, as local injury hit-and-runs have climbed slightly in the past three years.

Lacy is the only hit-and-run victim more than two months into the new year and the only fatality since 2005 in the county. But in 2006, seven injury hit-and-runs were reported, compared to five in 2005 and four in 2004.

Many circumstances, including being uninsured, intoxicated, unlicensed and having an arrest warrant out, may lead to a driver not stopping after hitting someone, California Highway Patrol spokesman Don Bloyd said.

But oftentimes hit-and-run drivers can't keep the sense of guilt to themselves and end up telling someone close, he said. Sometimes living with the guilt becomes too much, so the driver eventually turns his or herself into law enforcement.

When that doesn't happen, however, any number of psychological factors could be at play, said Phil Freneau, College of the Redwoods-Del Norte psychology professor.

The driver could either be "a true psychopath who intentionally set out to get someone and used their car as a weapon and planned it," Freneau said. Or "if it was accidental, you've got an immature personality — someone functioning morally at a low-level of thinking."

There also is the possibility of a driver functioning at such an egocentric level "that they would be justifying what happened," Freneau said.

That person would have thought processes such as, "It wasn't my fault, it was an accident, the person ran in front of the car and I don't want to get involved with authorities," he said.

Then there are those drivers who blames themselves, are terribly guilt-ridden, sleepless at night and have nightmares, Freneau said.

"That's the person who reacted out of extreme stress," he said. "They weren't in their right mind in the moments afterward."

Someone with that personality type would be more likely to turn themselves in "because they'd be so incredibly remorseful and grief-ridden about it," Freneau said.

But he stressed these categories by no means illustrate the full spectrum of possible personalities.

"There are shades in between," Freneau said. "It's a pretty mixed bag in terms of what might be going on."

But someone working at a "normal, ethical moral level" would likely feel tremendous guilt and self-blame, he said, adding that any number of psychological problems may pop up.

"They could start drinking or smoking, or drink more or smoke more," Freneau said, just one form of self-medication to help dissolve the pain.

Also, people in similar situations have been known to anonymously try to make amends with the victim's family, he said.

But in the case of Lacy, "I think anyone who really did have their head together would not stay anonymous," Freneau said. "They'd come back and try to make it right."

James Jessee, a friend of the Lacy family, said whoever hit Josh likely was traveling alone. And "they have to have a conscience of some sort," he said.

More than 100 tips have flown into the California Highway Patrol's office since the accident and between 50 and 75 suspect vehicles from Garberville to Oregon have been cleared.

But nearly a month after, CHP haven't found the driver or vehicle and no one has turned themselves into authorities.

"There's no excuse not to stop," Bloyd said. "This was a major incident and has shed light on (hit-and-runs)."

The CHP has had better luck identifying a suspect in the Askew hit-and-run but are concerned that charges won't be filed. The Nov. 24 accident, which occurred just north of Walker Road on U.S. Hwy. 199, was classified as a hit-and-run, as the CHP initially said the driver fled on foot.

However the CHP has since determined that a 22-year-old male, who was originally said to be a passenger, was driving the 1990 Mazda pickup that was registered to his father.

A witness at the Hiouchi Hamlet saw the 22-year-old male driving the truck only 10 minutes prior to the accident and noted Askew was the only passenger in the truck, the CHP said.

The only problem is proving that beyond a reasonable doubt, Bloyd said, as another witness at the crash scene didn't recognize the 22-year-old male as the driver.

"There's some questions," Bloyd said.

While the CHP is still receiving one to seven calls daily with tips on the vehicle that struck Lacy, investigating officer Pete Gonzalez said they have "no idea where the person is from."

And at this point, Freneau suspects the driver, who appears to be hiding, is running on an immature psychological level.

"Unfortunately that's the way it is," he said. "A person who hasn't come forward by now isn't likely to because they're not running at a functioning level."