In which one of our readers turns into an amateur sleuth, tracks down the doer of a dastardly deed, and ensures that the scales of justice are balanced.
Editor's Note: In a comment to a recent column, reader Rene Cardenas mentioned that he had turned into a sleuth, helping the police to track down… Contributor David Ashton begged for more details, so Rene obliged with the following:
Hi David, thank you for your request. I was concerned that my ramblings were off-topic and would distract from Max's main line of thought, but Max gave me permission to give you a synopsis of this little jewel in the adventures of a Sherlock Holmes "wannabe".
...It was certainly a singular heavy snow day for us in this part of Texas, and you may know what is said of poor drivers around this neck of the woods. "If you ain't used to driving on snow, you better watch for the fool ahead of you and get out of his way when you see someone speeding. The next time you will see them again will be flipped over by side of the road."
On the day in question, my wife was driving my daughter to school. This was a routine morning commute, with the exception of the previous night's snow. I remember clearing her car windows (a task I always do gladly to give me some peace of mind) so her visibility was not in question, and perhaps this gave her a better chance to witness the details of the events that awaited her.
As it turns out, the traffic in north Dallas is heavy and at times very aggressive; few people tend to yield for slow-moving merging traffic. With these pieces of background information in place, let me put things from my wife's perspective: She was driving in the middle lane of a north-bound six-lane avenue with dense traffic, when a west-bound driver suddenly approached the intersection. Maybe due to his lack of experience with snow, or possibly due to the fact that he was in a rush, on this particular occasion he decided that the full stop required for west bound traffic was optional.
His lack of attention basically created a collision with the right flank of my wife's small sedan (Toyota Yaris) at an estimated 30 MPH with my wife traveling at 45 MPH north bound.
You can imagine the shock when seeing an automobile in the corner of your eyes not stopping when you expected it would… then the collision… followed by the air bag deployment greeting your pearly whites during the impact.
After both cars came to a complete halt, rather than stopping and rendering aid, the other driver decided that he needed to drive in reverse and pretend that he had not run the stop sign. He stopped at the intersection for few seconds while my wife and daughter were still recovering from the shock, and then the driver after having second thoughts, he fled the area in reverse, never to be seen again. Among the other drivers and a few pedestrians that witnessed the accident, nobody could give a license plate or a detailed description of this hit and run driver.
However, my daughter very clearly noted the color and brand of his truck: a black Dodge of recent vintage. It would have been nice if this individual had displayed a license plate on the front of his vehicle for my daughter to commit to memory. But she did describe the absence of a license plate on the front and also a dark cabin, which meant that she was not able to clearly see the driver, except for a unique mustache.
My instincts told me I could not rely on the traffic investigators to locate the run-away driver, so I decided to practice my sleuth skills. The fact that there was little distinct evidence other than a color and model for the vehicle made it hard to eliminate all possible suspects during a three-day stake-out operation I conducted.
However, it is a well-known fact that we humans are individuals of habit, and that most of us fall into predictable patterns, sometimes after finding the shortest commute, or the best route to our favorite morning stops for coffee, breakfast, or gasoline. This human trait worked in my favor, along with plenty of patience, and also the fact that this individual left a residential area less than a square mile that only has three possible routes to main thoroughfares.
During the week following the accident, I woke up early, stopped by my favorite convenience store for a large coffee, and parked close to the same intersection as the accident, and prepared myself to wait for at least two hours each day the following week.
On the first day, I saw at least eight trucks that fitted the description, so I collected license plates and driver descriptions in case that I had to pursue those leads.
My initial intuition was that this individual most likely was not going to drive the same vehicle if he had more than one vehicle. Thus, after work the second day, I decided that it would be a good idea to drive around the neighborhood and take a close look at any trucks that matched my daughter's description. To my surprise, there were at least one fleet (belonging to a landscaping firm) of 12 units of the same color and description. These trucks were on the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex near the scene of the accident. Just the break that I needed, but way too many trucks to point the finger prematurely.
After my initial close inspection of the front body work of all these truck, three units showed damage. However, this finding was just the beginning of my search. I had to find conclusive evidence before I could point the finger to an innocent person, so I decided to stake out the next morning to see if I could spot a driver with distinctive mustache.
The next day, I noted that around the same time of the accident there was one individual who did not make a complete stop. Instead he made a rolling stop – the kind a mean cop would give you a traffic ticket for careless driving. I felt that I had my main suspect in sight, so I captured his license plate from behind.
Later that afternoon, I made another trip to see if the same truck was parked in the same vicinity. To my delight it was. This driver obviously thought that the "heat" had dissipated, that he was no longer in trouble, and that he could get away without having to pay the consequences of a careless act.
I went home and suited up for a long walk with my golden retriever "Zooey." I pretended to walk my dog thru the neighborhood while paying close attention to any potential body damage on this particular truck. To my surprise and dismay, the truck in question had only minor inflexions in the front bumper, and a missing assembly for the right-turn indicator. Having seen the extensive damage to my wife's car, it was hard to believe that this truck, with such little damage, had impacted and almost totaled our small sedan.
However, the missing lens made me suspicious, and sure enough, this individual had removed the molded lens assembly and disposed of it in a nearby public trash can, that I happened to peek through as an afterthought. My mind was racing, I grabbed the pieces I could find of this red lens assembly and thought to myself: "If this was a murder, I am sure this person would have been toast and given himself away by his carelessness." The next day, I gave my detailed description of this truck and its license plate to the police, along with a full account as to why I had deduced this was the individual that caused the accident and then driven away with disregard for what he caused.
Although the officer in charge of this accident investigation appreciated my effort, he chastised me for doing his work and I got brief on how dangerous this could have been. If I remember correctly, my abbreviated and factual account was only about 5 minutes long, but his telling-me-off took well over 15 minutes ;-)
Well, it took some background investigation and confirmation from the police officer's part, and a couple follow-up calls from me, before he could confirm that he was going to confront the suspect.
To makes things more interesting, the officer told me that he had to play a bluff with this individual:
He had to tell him that he was under investigation and it had two choices: Come clean with me and pay me for damages, or face the insurance company and possible court date and trial. Unfortunately, the officer felt that there was only circumstantial evidence and the driver could most likely escape without any repercussion, since it was very unlikely that city attorney would persecute a case like this.
Well, I was not present during the officer's visit to this individual, but I have to assume that he scared the heck out of this guy, perhaps describing the worst case scenario of his negligence, because the driver he called me within minutes of the officer's visit to apologize and to find out what were the damages that he would have to pay.
Perhaps, at this point, you would have the same thoughts that I had at the moment. I would like to have been able to reach across the phone and strangle this guy for the trouble he caused. But I was restrained by my wife presence. I was polite since my wife shared the conversation over speaker phone and she felt that he was sincere (I remain unconvinced to this day of his remorse).
The driver got lucky that we did not take him to court and make him pay for all the real costs, time lost, insurance deductible, and other miscellaneous expenses. Between my wife's restrain and our ethics struggle, we did not force him to pay for all expenses that the insurance had already paid on repairs. But again, what matters to me was that my wife was completely satisfied and had forgiven him.
The bottom line is that crime doesn't pay. Even if you think you got away, eventually it will catch up to you. So best policy is to never leave the scene of an accident, or another amateur Sherlock Holmes may be coming after you :-)
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