How One Suburban Police Department Solved a Hit-and-Run Crash – NBC Chicago

How One Suburban Police Department Solved a Hit-and-Run Crash – NBC Chicago

As the Chicago Police Department’s clearance rate on hit-and-run crashes lags behind other major cities, with case after case going cold, some despite obvious clues, one suburban police department has taken a very different approach.

“It’s really difficult to solve a hit and run crash because of the fact that you’re always behind the curve when it comes to trying to locate a vehicle, driver or evidence that can be perishable,” said Evanston Police Sgt. Scott Sophier.

Sophier led the investigation into a hit-and-run crash that took place in the early morning hours of Sept. 17 at Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue. The victim was a Northwestern University student who had just arrived on campus to start his freshman year.

Video obtained by NBC 5 Investigates shows he was walking in the crosswalk when an SUV heading south on Sheridan struck him, flipping him over the hood of the vehicle. The victim was hospitalized in critical condition with “significant injuries that included bleeding on the brain,” Sophier said. The victim’s family said in a statement that he had to take medical leave from Northwestern and returned to his home out of state as he continues to recover.

The driver fled the scene and witnesses relayed only a partial plate. But where this differs from so many cases in Chicago – Evanston police took immediate action.

“When someone is injured or killed in a traffic crash, that is every bit as violent and consequential as many of the crimes that are typically covered on the news,” Sophier said.

Reports obtained through an open records request by NBC 5 Investigates show that in less than 48 hours, Evanston police had collected videos and photos from multiple surveillance cameras to put the puzzle together, piece by piece.

“A lot of camera footage is very perishable,” Sophier said, noting that camera settings may include a short window of time, even just 24 hours, that footage is retained. “If you don’t have someone that is available and ready to try to go capture that, that’s evidence that could be lost that could make or break your ability to follow up on that and have a successful resolution to those cases.”

Those videos show an SUV matching the vehicle’s description in a nearby parking lot, and driving in the area just minutes before the crash.

Footage from inside a university building also captured the owner going to and from the car – which a Northwestern police sergeant spotted in the same lot three days after the crash.

“If we did not locate this vehicle or this individual at the time that we did, it’s very likely this person could either attempt to repair damage, sell the car, hide the car, clean up any trace evidence,” Sophier said.

The owner of the vehicle initially denied any involvement, but Sophier said that during the roughly three-hour interview, he had the suspect identify himself in those surveillance videos – showing him that police had done their homework.

“If you’re going into an interview without having conducted a thorough investigation, if somebody is going to stonewall or deny their involvement, you really don’t have much to then circle back with to continue that interview,” Sophier said.

“But if you do have evidence and you’re able to show what you have and what you’ve done,” Sophier continued, “you find it, you know, at that point very difficult to believe it could have been someone else.”

The suspect has since pleaded guilty to two felonies: one count of leaving the scene of a crash and one count of failure to report a crash.

Sophier said the department prioritizes these cases to get closure for victims whose lives are forever changed.

“Every time you’re speaking to a family member or the victim at the hospital or after a funeral, you see how much pain they’re in,” Sophier said. “It’s important to us to show that we do care deeply about their loved one and about what occurred and that we will put in every effort we can to solve that.”

The victim’s father said the crash was the single most traumatic event of his son’s life, that he still suffers from symptoms like headaches and they don’t know if he will be able to continue to participate in athletics because of his injuries.

Beyond the physical injuries, the victim’s father said his son continues to face emotional pain as well, since the crash becoming anti-social and “extremely afraid of going out.”

“Most nights, he has had nightmares. His mom cries almost daily when she sees his scars,” the family’s statement reads. “We don’t know whether he is able to adjust himself well academically and mentally when he starts school again. We do not know the long-term effects this event will have on our son’s life.”

Sophier said he’s all too familiar with the impact that a case like this has on victims and even witnesses.

“His life is absolutely forever changed and so is that of his family and friends or any of the witnesses that were there that day,” Sophier said. “’The amount of trauma and post-traumatic stress that that can cause us, to simply do something as benign as cross a roadway, now is going to forever be a thought every time that individual is outside and doing what anyone else would think of as a seemingly normal or natural activity. So the impacts are not just at the time of the occurrence or when somebody’s hospitalized, that’s something that does stay with them and with their family forever.”

Sophier said Evanston police also prioritize cases like this to get dangerous drivers off the road.

“The bottom line is if they feel enabled to have the ability to strike and injure or kill somebody and think it’s acceptable to drive away, then we don’t want to see that behavior repeated,” he said.

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