Prosecutors have declined to file charges against a truck driver who is suspected of striking and killing a homeless woman who was well-known in her Boyle Heights neighborhood for performing good deeds.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office said it would be too difficult to get a conviction in the hit-and-run death of Cynthia Szukala, 69, who achieved brief notice years ago as the bride in a skid row love story.
An 18-wheel tractor trailer struck Szukala on Dec. 21 in a dark stretch of the 3700 block of Union Pacific Avenue in Boyle Heights. It appears that Szukala was sweeping the area around the small battered RV she shared with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend.
A security camera had captured an image of his truck, which detectives released to the public.
No one has accused the driver of intentionally striking down Szukala, but it's against the law to leave the scene of an accident without calling for or rendering aid.
It turns out investigators had a suspect, 52-year-old Daniel Rico of Rialto, within days. Rico called detectives on Dec. 26, saying a friend had alerted him about seeing a picture of his truck in the news. Rico said he would come down to the station, but then was delayed for several days because of scheduling issues with his lawyer.
Detectives finally interviewed Rico, who brought the attorney, on Jan. 5. Rico said he was unaware that he'd hit someone and simply drove away none the wiser.
But there's also a counter narrative from a reluctant witness, who lives in a nearby RV, according to authorities. The front part of the truck — the tractor, which has the engine and cab — hit Szukala as it was slowly backing up. The driver was angling his rig to enter a business across the street — Rico confirmed that part. The five tires on the right side of the tractor ran over Szukala.
The witness claims he alerted Rico to the collision.
"The driver supposedly got out and looked and might have seen the body and then left the scene," said Det. Juan Campos of the Central Traffic Division.
Security camera footage shows that as he drove away, Rico "made a wide turn to the left of the body. He had to wait for cars to clear his left side," Campos said. "If the body wasn't there, any driver would have gone straight instead of around. Obviously, there was an obstacle in front of him: the body."
But there are problems with both the witness and the security camera evidence.
The security camera caught only the vehicle, not the collision, because the camera is motion activated and the truck backed up beyond the sensor's range just before the accident. After the accident, another passing car reactivated the camera, allowing investigators to see Rico's truck leaving the scene. The video itself is of marginal quality and taken from a distance.
"That area is dark," Campos said. "You can't see what the driver is going around because it's dark and it's a long shot."
According to a deputy district attorney, the video also could be interpreted as supporting Rico's claim that "he left because he could not negotiate an entry into the business due to all the vehicle[s] parked on the street."
"Video does support [Rico's] various failed attempts at negotiating entry into the business," wrote Jose Luis Arias, who reviewed the case for the District Attorney's Office.
Then there's the credibility of the witness, who was drunk at the time and initially denied seeing the body or confronting the driver. Campos said the witness altered his account in a later interview, when he was sober. Campos felt that the witness had been traumatized at the sight of the mangled body of Szukala, who had been kind to him. And he also was reluctant to cooperate with investigators because of his criminal past, which includes convictions for narcotics possession, disorderly conduct, burglary, robbery, domestic violence and escape from custody.
The witness could have fared badly on the stand under cross examination, Campos said. "But I feel like he was telling the truth."
Rico could not be reached through his attorney.
A cheerful volunteer at church known to many as Granny, Szukala was wont to give money to people. She also set up a feeding station for neighborhood cats.
In 1989, her skid row wedding to Raymond Szukala became a bright spot amid despair and was reported in the Los Angeles Times. The pair had become friends eight years earlier, when both worked as security guards downtown. Unable to work because of health problems, they struggled through a period of homelessness before getting married. Years after her husband died, Szukala fell into homelessness once more.
Szukala's brother said it feels as though his sister has been victimized again.
"Him not knowing he hit her, that's a bunch of baloney," said Carl John Arellano. "You'd know if you ran over a dog or a speed bump. How can he not feel anything?"