A Driver’s Bloody Run-In with an Angry Detroit

Monica Davey, New York Times, April 21, 2014


As Mr. [Steve] Utash drove his pickup truck on the city’s East Side, a 10-year-old boy suddenly stepped into the street, the authorities said, and Mr. Utash’s truck hit him. Mr. Utash pulled over to check on the boy, whose leg was broken and whose mouth was bleeding. Soon after, a crowd descended on Mr. Utash, 54, beating and kicking him until he lost consciousness and was left in critical condition. That Mr. Utash is white and the crowd African-American is only part of a broader, more complicated problem of crime and violence in a largely segregated metropolitan area. As church and civic leaders condemned the attack and some in the neighborhood stepped forward to identify those involved, Detroit began searching its soul to repair the damage.


As the families of Mr. Utash and the accused waited tensely in a cramped courtroom here on Monday, a judge found probable cause to send to trial four of the men accused of assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to do great bodily harm. A fifth person, who is 16, was also charged with ethnic intimidation — the only overt nod to a racial element to the case, in a city that is more than 80 percent black surrounded by suburbs that, in some cases, are mostly white.


Kym L. Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, declined to discuss the particulars of the case, but she said that race certainly remained a matter of tension in this city. “We have a lot of work to do when it comes to race relations,” she said. “We always talk about it, but there’s no follow-through.”


“We’re not alone as a city in having crime, but there just seems to be a relentlessness about it here,” said Kim Trent, who works at a think tank and is a member of the Board of Governors for Wayne State University. In a matter of two days, the tires of her car were stolen, then she found that the rental car she had borrowed so her car could be fixed was gone, too. Her husband has been held up, as has her father. “Part of me feels like we’ve hit rock bottom,” she said.


Mr. Utash’s truck hit the boy on April 2, just after 4 p.m. The authorities said Mr. Utash was not at fault, and a surveillance video from a nearby shop suggests that the boy, who was standing with friends, stepped out into the busy street. Mr. Utash, who is a grandfather, pulled over, witnesses said, and emerged from his truck, asking about the boy who was lying in the street, crying.

Deborah Hughes, a retired nurse, tended to the boy, as a crowd of more than a dozen men gathered, stopping traffic in both directions. Some older teenagers and young adults began yelling at Mr. Utash, cursing him and asking, “What if that was my little brother?” recalled Ashley Daniels, a witness.

A first punch was thrown, and Mr. Utash stumbled to the ground. When he got up, dazed, someone dared him to pick up his hat, and from there the beating, kicking and stomping began, Ms. Daniels testified on Monday. At one point, she said, Wonzey Saffold, one of the five accused, pulled a gun from his waistband, waved it in the air and then at Mr. Utash.

In court on Monday, lawyers for several of the men, who ranged from 17 to 30 years old, argued that the charges against their clients were too extreme and that some accused of a punch or a kick or two ought not be accused of intending to kill anyone. The Detroit police said that they were still investigating and that additional arrests were possible.

The boy who was hit was treated for his injuries and released from the hospital.

Mr. Utash’s relatives have been holding vigil at the hospital, where, they said, he is conscious but still struggling and uncertain of what happened. Mr. Utash had no health insurance, but money has poured in from across the world, they said, after family members issued an online plea for help. As of Monday, they had raised $180,912. But his condition, they said, remained bleak: “He is still unable to distinguish reality from his delusions,” an online family posting said over the weekend.


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