When a car barreled into Reinaldo Velasquez-Yanes on New York Avenue early Sunday morning, the driver did what others sometimes do--he fled, leaving the Huntington Station resident to die in the dark.
About 18 hours later, another driver on East Jericho Turnpike did the same thing, fleeing after striking a pedestrian who, while seriously injured, survived.
It is an action that can protect a driver from a more serious charge, such as driving while intoxicated. Leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage is a misdemeanor, while serious injury or death could mean felony charges.
Fatal or life-threatening accidents bring out the Suffolk County Police Vehicle Crime Unit, while those where the victim is expected to survive are handled by Second Precinct detectives, said Det. Sgt. James Madden, who is based in Yaphank.
Madden said that his unit, which was formed in January, responds to the scene, looking for witnesses, video cameras from nearby businesses that might have recorded something, red-light cameras, and physical evidence, such as a paint transfer or pieces from the vehicle that might lead back to the driver. Police were able to determine that the car in the fatal accident was a silver or gray Mercury Grand Marquis, with a model year between 1998 and 2002. The vehicle sustained damage to the front-end grill.
Sometimes the unit gets tips from auto-body repair shops reporting suspicious damage, when the driver's account of how the damage occurred doesn't match what the shop workers see, Madden said. "Maybe based on their instincts, they would reach out to us. But we've had it go both ways, sometimes they're right, sometimes they're not. We do like phone calls like that. And we do reach out to shops to ask them to notify us."
Hit-and-run accidents also bring a response from Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who has spoken before on the crime. "Despite the alarming number of hit-and-run crashes in Suffolk County resulting in death or serious injury, prosecutors are hamstrung from obtaining significant prison sentences for defendants convicted of this crime under current law. As district attorney, I continue to urge that the law be changed so that drivers who flee are treated the same as drivers who stay at the scene and are driving while intoxicated or impaired by drugs. The fact that they are not only encourages drivers to leave the scene and imperils the safety of other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
"As District Attorney, as a husband, father, pedestrian and driver this situation is completely unacceptable.," Spota said. "The current law is weak and must be toughened."
Velasquez-Yanes will be buried in Honduras after visitation Saturday from 8 to 10 p.m. at A.L. Jacobsen Funeral Home. He was the son of Cirilo and Braulia and the brother of Maria Gloria Yanes.