L.A.’s Bloody Hit-and-Run Epidemic

Simone Wilson, Los Angeles Weekly, December 6, 2012

The last thing Marie Hardwick remembers from the morning of Sunday, March 25, as she legally crossed Wilshire Boulevard is glancing through the windshield of a shiny black sports car—into the expressionless eyes of a man who, milliseconds later, shot his sedan like a bullet into her delicate frame, leaving Hardwick crumpled and broken in the crosswalk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The pretty young Eastside jewelry artist had just emerged from a LACMA screening of Christian Marclay’s experimental and striking 24-hour film The Clock, described by The New Yorker as “a seamless transition between reality and fantasy.” Right around the 2 a.m. mark, when Hardwick stepped out, the film, made of hundreds and hundreds of snippets from other films, had begun to morph into a chaotic, sleep-deprived nightmare world.

Those horrors spilled out into the intersection of Spaulding Avenue and Wilshire, where, as a “walk” signal flashed overhead, a black BMW hit Hardwick so hard that her bottom row of teeth was knocked out, her jaw snapped apart like a puppet’s, both her kneecaps shattered and the bones in both legs broke into pieces. One femur was split in five places.

Then the driver zipped away—another in Los Angeles’ epidemic of bloody hit-and-run crimes—leaving behind a telltale piece of debris: his side-view mirror.

Today, after extensive treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and home care at her grandmother’s house—where she was attached to a feeding tube—Hardwick has made significant progress. She’s able to walk, although with great difficulty, but she’ll probably never run again. Her jaw has been rebuilt, although she can’t bite into food with her reconstructed front teeth. And she cannot stand heavily air-conditioned rooms. The cold air turns her 12 internal metal knee-screws into painful icicles.

Because her legs were maimed, she could no longer climb the stairs to her Boyle Heights apartment on the city’s Eastside. So at age 25, she had to move back in with her parents. Careerwise, the accident has slowed her down “tremendously,” Hardwick explains. Her fragile legs can’t handle the urban terrain of the downtown L.A. jewelry district, where the talented jewelry maker buys her supplies.

Hardwick has shelled out some $10,000 for medical bills, and expects that to double. Add to that the future cost of a car she hopes to equip with special seats to accommodate her injuries.

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Hardwick is the survivor of an almost never officially discussed, little-researched epidemic that has a terrible grip on Los Angeles—a hit-and-run crime wave that has marched on for years while mayors, chiefs of police and other city leaders ignore it or remain ignorant of it.

There is no LAPD task force or organized city effort to address the problem, yet the numbers are mind-boggling. About 20,000 hit-and-run crashes, from fender benders to multiple fatalities, are recorded by the Los Angeles Police Department each year.

That’s huge, even in a city of 3.8 million people. In the United States, 11 percent of vehicle collisions are hit-and-runs. But in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly has learned, an incredible 48 percent of crashes were hit-and-runs in 2009, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. According to data collected by the state, some 4,000 hit-and-run crashes a year inside L.A. city limits, including cases handled by LAPD, California Highway Patrol and the L.A. County Sheriff, resulted in injury and/or death. Of those, according to a federal study, about 100 pedestrians died; the number of motorists and bicyclists who die would push that toll even higher.

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Hardwick, a soft-spoken U.K. native with a freckled nose and long, dark, hippie hair, can describe her attacker in surprising detail: She vividly recalls that he was very fit, that his coloring strongly suggested a mixed-race man, and that his bone structure and skin put him between 28 and 32 years old.

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Yet the Los Angeles Police Department’s West Traffic division, which handled the case, never interviewed Hardwick, an eyewitness victim of a felony. That was not the only misstep in a botched investigation of a crime that drew media coverage but never drew any interest from LAPD brass.

Corey Marsh, a Disney executive driving his car on Wilshire Boulevard that March night, was right behind the hit-and-run driver. He tells the Weekly that the “police seemed discombobulated” during their on-site sweep. After Marsh pulled over to see if he could help, LAPD officers who responded failed to perform the most basic evidence-gathering, he says.

Among other things, he says they did not collect the side-view mirror that cracked off of the suspect’s car as the driver ran Hardwick down. (Would the mirror have given up the driver’s fingerprints or DNA? Nobody will ever know.) And, Marsh says, the LAPD officers brushed off witnesses who described the suspect’s car as a black BMW with no license plates, and who thought they knew the getaway route the BMW had taken.

West Traffic Detective Brent Johnson could not comment to the Weekly regarding these allegations. That’s because two regular patrol officers responded to the bloody scene outside LACMA—not trained investigators like Johnson, from the West Traffic division. Johnson didn’t receive those officers’ report until at least three days after the harrowing hit-and-run. After that, he recalls, another “day or two” passed before LAPD released a bulletin asking the public to keep an eye out—for a black BMW with front-end damage.

The man whom witnesses saw strike down Marie Hardwick was long gone and has not been found.

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Since 2001, the city’s hit-and-run rate has hovered at or near 50 percent of all vehicle crashes. (LAPD could not provide the Weekly with any stats before 2001.)

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Although [LAPD Chief Charlie] Beck does not discuss L.A.’s hit-and-run epidemic publicly, he alluded to it when he argued last February that hit-and-runs could be dramatically reduced by granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants, who the chief believes flee the scene out of fear they’ll be deported.

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