COLUMN ONE : Sudden Death on the Streets : Southern California leads the nation in hit-and-run cases. This most random of crimes leaves victims' families in shock and police frustrated by elusive suspects and clues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the grounds of a majestic home in Hancock Park, the traces of the epidemic are subtle.

Patches of dirt stand out as scabs in what had been a lovely corner garden. Littering the ground are shards of glass, an automobile headlight and, wrapped in cellophane, a wilting bouquet. A hit-and-run driver killed Marcy Lewis in a horrific flash right here.

On a barren sidewalk in Harbor City, outlining a vacant corner lot claimed by weeds, votive candles burn for Porfiria Lopez. A hit-and-run driver struck her in the street, but most of her body came to rest on this corner, where a homemade shrine marks the grief of strangers and friends.

Neither case has been solved. The women died within an hour of each other on the same March evening in a region where such deaths are routine: Southern California leads the nation in hit-and-run accidents--fatal and otherwise. And Los Angeles by far leads the state.

With its large population and dependence on the automobile, Los Angeles simply has more drivers on the road. It also has more who are likely to be involved in hit-and-runs: people who are driving without a license, without insurance or in an unregistered vehicle.

When they hit something--or someone--their first impulse often is to flee. Police believe that this is particularly true of some illegal immigrants, whose fear of government officials outweighs what they might not understand as their obligation to stop.

And, in general, many hit-and-run drivers are drunk.

The victims defy typecasting. All ages, races and classes have been struck--in cars, on bicycles and on foot. And the fleeing driver often gets away, stealing from victims' families even the sad satisfaction of justice done.

Still, survivors make pilgrimages to the site where their loved one fell, in search of information or, failing that, a sense of peace.

"All we want to do is get this murderer," Marcy Lewis' mother-in-law, Pat Lewis, pleads to no one and everyone at once. She cannot look at the garden, with its grisly reminders, for long.

Police say the driver of a white '78 Chevy van raced through a stop sign at about 70 m.p.h. and crashed into the new Infiniti that was carrying Marcy Lewis and her husband, Simon, home to Sherman Oaks. Lewis, 27, a Music Center publicist, never had a chance.

Her husband of less than five months, an independent film producer who at 36 is the youngest of the Lewis sons, is still hospitalized with a fragile hold on life.

The driver escaped by running away. The van's last registered owner cannot be found.

The Lewises, who immigrated to Los Angeles 17 years ago from London, are offering a reward for information leading to prosecution. Donations have pushed the total above $20,000.

Police say their suspect could have fled the country. More than a month after the accident, they say they have nothing; not even the crackpots have called with clues.

"It's the anonymity of what happened here," says Simon's brother Jonathan. "For me, that is what makes it so heinous. This person came out of the blue and went back into the blue. It's like a professional hit."

"They act like God, these people!" says his mother, near tears.

*

Last year, half of the 51,627 surface street accidents reported to the Los Angeles Police Department were hit-and-runs.

Such cases are among the most difficult to solve. There is no motive. Witnesses see different things in the blur of a passing vehicle, or the glow of taillights, or perhaps nothing at all.

License plates may have expired. Registration records can be a dead end; fictitious names can be used. Police say suspects often slip across the border into Mexico or beyond. Then another case comes along.

In Los Angeles, there are so many hit-and-runs that police routinely ignore less serious ones involving only property damage. If they investigated them all, they say, they would do nothing else. The department does not keep records on how many are solved, but a rough accounting from the commanders of LAPD's four traffic divisions shows that in about half of the fatal cases--the ones given the most attention--suspects are eventually found.

The hit-and-run problem is exacerbated by what people in and outside the government describe as an insidious and deadly cycle in California. As legislators pass more laws to keep irresponsible drivers off the road, the truly irresponsible seem to flout them even more.

Although some measures--such as automatic license suspensions for one drunk driving arrest--are credited with saving thousands of lives, there is often fallout, too.

For example, before an owner can register a vehicle, he must pay outstanding traffic or parking fines. So instead of coming clean, the owner--especially a poor one--may decide not to register the vehicle. Then, he cannot insure it.

Even if he does register his vehicle, getting insurance after a drunk driving arrest is tough. An existing policy may be canceled or rates may skyrocket.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that 150,000 convicted drunk drivers each year do not even try to get their licenses back--or maintain an insurance policy--but drive nonetheless.

Although no one knows how many regularly drive without a license, the DMV estimates the number at 10% of the state's drivers, or about 2 million people.

This includes many of the 41,815 Californians who had their licenses revoked last year, and the 1.2 million others whose licenses were suspended. The primary reasons were driving without insurance and driving while drunk.

*

Normandie Avenue in Harbor City is four lanes wide, bordered by housing projects, graffiti-scrawled walls, a church and a market where the homeboys like to hang. Cars heading down the hill fly toward Pacific Coast Highway. Hardly anybody in the neighborhood knows that the speed limit is 35. Laws get broken here all the time.

On the same evening that the Lewises were driving through Hancock Park, Porfiria Lopez, 62, and her neighbor, Esther Alvarado, were walking along Normandie toward their church, the Iglesia Apostolica de la Fe Cristo Jesus. They were right on time to make the 6:30 service, with Bibles and hymn books in hand.

The women, friends for 14 years, crossed Normandie halfway and waited for the westbound traffic to pass. As they stood in the street, Lopez remarked to Alvarado about one car that seemed to be traveling particularly fast.

In the same instant, Alvarado heard a thud, turned around, and screamed. Lopez's body was flying through the air, disintegrating from the impact of the speeding car.

"It was like a bullet that passed by," Alvarado says.

Even after the Fire Department hosed down the area, Lopez's relatives found bits of her flesh the next day. Her ankle and foot were recovered more than a block away. Her blood stains the street still.

The driver of the car that killed her--a silver color, investigators believe--never slowed down.

"We have nothing," Los Angeles police Detective Bob Platt says. "Sometimes I just go walk around the neighborhood, hoping somebody will come up to me, tell me something that they saw that will lead me someplace."

And Platt notes with irony that barring some gross vehicular violation--such as driving while drunk--the driver might not have been charged with a criminal offense if he had stopped. He says Lopez may have contributed to her death by jaywalking--although her relatives point out that the closest crosswalk is blocks away. Fleeing the scene of an accident, however, is a crime.

But like the vast majority of hit-and-run cases--which usually draw little attention from the public and the media--there is no reward offered for information in the death of Lopez, a mother of two and grandmother of 10.

Her family is left with only a faint hope that somebody will come forward with information.

Within hours after Lopez was killed, the small shrine was erected on the corner. The neighborhood people say it was the homeboys who built the cross. Lopez didn't like the gangs, but she was a friend to all.

She and her family--her husband, sister, nieces and nephews--have lived on these desolate blocks for nearly 30 years.

"Black people, white people, people of all different races have been bringing flowers and cards," says her nephew, Eddie Torres. "They knew her as a nice lady. Everybody respected her. My homeboys would be doing something wrong, and my aunt would come out and tell them to stop. And they would."

Says her 64-year-old sister, Petra Lopez, through tears, "We were like one person. We were always together. She was so accepting of her life. She was so good. She always saw the good in everybody else."

Lopez's death tears at Detective Platt too. Like her relatives, he cannot erase the ignoble image of her body torn into bits. But soon, he says, the case will likely go into "never-never land."

"It will always be open, but it's not going to be solved without the citizens' help," he says.

"And it depends on whether the person who did this has a conscience. If it was a kid, a gangbanger type, that's doubtful. The average citizen would have stopped."

If Platt does make an arrest in the case, he says, the likely charge would be felony hit-and-run, tacked on to the original violation: misdemeanor manslaughter--what traffic cops describe as a "ticket with a body."

*

Police and Highway Patrol officers say that if you work hit-and-runs long enough, you notice certain themes. Drivers most likely to be involved in such accidents feel they have something to lose by stopping, or they don't understand the laws of the United States.

Detective Bill Whittacker, officer in charge of the LAPD's South Traffic Division, says an internal audit of January arrests showed that 65% of his division's felony traffic suspects were in the country illegally. He says the department was able to determine the suspects' immigration status based on questions asked during booking.

Dick Litsinger, the department's chief traffic detective in Central Division, says "easily 75%" of felony traffic suspects in his area are undocumented immigrants. Estimates from traffic investigators in the LAPD's other two divisions are not quite as high.

Illegal immigrants do not necessarily get involved in more accidents than other drivers, but officers believe that some are less likely to stop--particularly those from places such as Mexico and Central America, where traffic laws can be onerous.

Moreover, DMV officials worry that the new law requiring drivers to show proof of legal residency before they can be issued a driver's license may encourage more unskilled--and unlicensed--drivers.

"I think the fear factor is a big part in all this," says Sgt. Julio Nunez, assistant watch commander of the LAPD's South Traffic Division. "Many of the individuals believe the laws are the same as where they came from.

"In Mexico, if you don't have insurance, or money for the hospital or repairs, they can arrest you and put you in jail. Secondly, because we wear a law enforcement uniform, they think we are tied in with immigration."

Nunez has applied for a federal grant to fund a program he hopes will alleviate some of the problem by providing public service announcements in Spanish, explaining traffic laws and warning of the dangers of driving while drunk.

"Because they have a fear of police and because they have a lack of understanding, there is a greater likelihood that Spanish-speaking individuals will be hit-and-run drivers," Nunez says.

But other police and Highway Patrol officers say that education efforts, while laudable, are at best long-term. And they say even good detective work becomes almost meaningless when suspects flee across the Mexican border.

Gabriel Avila Vegahas evaded Anaheim police for nearly three years. They say his car jumped a curb and pinned 16-year-old Jose Viramontes against a house.

Viramontes lost his left leg. He spent almost a year in the hospital and never was able to return to high school.

As early as the evening of the accident, police said they believed Avila was already in Mexico.

"I would like him to pay for what he did," Viramontes says. "But I don't think he's going to come back around here."

Police in the San Fernando Valley tell a similar tale about Enrique Garcia Robles. They say he killed Gayle Gozar, 19, when he ran a red light and smashed his Chevy Blazer into a Nissan Sentra driven by Gozar's friend.

"It was a tank versus a tin can, basically," says Detective Jim Mann, who investigated the case three years ago.

"We were about a second behind him the whole time," says Mann of the police efforts to track Garcia down. "Then he crossed into Mexico and disappeared."

*

Despite long odds, investigators sometimes get lucky. Juan Ramon Martinez, 25, has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Kellie Rae Wilson, a single mother of a 4-year-old boy, as she rode her red bicycle in Azusa Canyon on a sunny afternoon in March.

The state says Martinez's weapon was his car, a 1959 Dodge Royal. The officers involved in the case look upon his arrest as a victory, a case of a big-time hit-and-run driver who did not get away.

Jim Duffy, a public defender in Pomona, will not talk about his client other than to say that he is very remorseful. "He wants the family to know that he wished it had never happened," Duffy says.

Prosecutors and the Highway Patrol say Martinez hit Wilson as she was pedaling up a canyon hill on California 39. The force of the impact shattered the windshield of Martinez's car, and threw Wilson down an embankment.

Wilson died within an hour. She was 30, a horticulturist and an assistant manager at a Santa Monica bike shop. Her leg was severed and the left side of her body was crushed.

The driver never stopped, passing one of Wilson's friends a little farther down the road.

In a sense, it was pure happenstance that put Martinez behind bars. He has pleaded not guilty and, unable to make $1 million bail, awaits a preliminary hearing Tuesday.

About 18 miles from the spot where Martinez allegedly hit Wilson, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies crested a hill and saw his car in the opposing lane. Although they had no report of the hit-and-run, the deputies noticed the Dodge's shattered windshield and said that just as they were about to pull Martinez over, his car drifted toward them.

According to the law enforcement account, when Martinez refused to stop, the deputies pursued him at speeds as high as 85 m.p.h. Witnesses said the chase ended when Martinez hit a bus stop sign--and a second bicyclist--as he was turning right.

Authorities say he got out of the car, ran and jumped a fence. A plainclothes police officer joined the chase, captured Martinez and held him for the deputies to arrest.

Tests showed that Martinez's blood alcohol level met the legal definition of drunk, prosecutor Kathy Cady says. Because Martinez has a drunk-driving conviction, she adds, the filing of the second-degree murder charge is apt.

"It's the only thing that's left in terms of making a difference," says Wilson's boyfriend, cinematographer Jonathan Rho.

Her sister, Kim Glasscock of Nashville, Tenn., says she plans to attend Martinez's trial to make a statement about the damage caused by a hit-and-run driver.

"I am going to put up the fight that Kellie would have wanted to put this guy behind bars," she says.

"This person had complete control as to whether or not this accident would happen. I guess that makes the anger more intense. And there is nothing we can do."

Dangerous Driving

California leads the nation in hit-and-run traffic accidents, with Los Angeles County accounting for the lion's share. Moreover, California has far more hit-and-run traffic deaths than anywhere else in the United States. Here is how Los Angeles County compares to other California counties, according to 1992 statistics:

Los Angeles County

* Hit-and-run accidents: 38,960

* Killed or injured: 18,317

* Total accidents: 153,386

Orange County

* Hit-and-runs: 7,214

* Killed or injured: 2,669

* Total accidents: 41,909

Alameda County

* Hit-and-runs: 6,973

* Killed or injured: 1,450

* Total accidents: 29,574

San Diego County

* Hit-and-runs: 4,301

* Killed or injured: 2,534

* Total accidents: 27,543

San Bernardino County

* Hit-and-runs: 4,129

* Killed or injured: 1,452

* Total accidents: 25,782

Riverside County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,966

* Killed or injured: 1,083

* Total accidents: 18,810

Santa Clara County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,869

* Killed or injured: 1,340

* Total accidents: 20,989

Fresno County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,517

* Killed or injured 986

* Total accidents: 9,458

Sacramento County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,366

* Killed or injured: 1,097

* Total accidents: 17,739

San Joaquin County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,328

* Killed or injured: 814

* Total accidents: 9,819

San Mateo County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,165

* Killed or injured: 491

* Total accidents: 10,370

Contra Costa County

* Hit-and-runs: 2,155

* Killed or injured: 552

* Total accidents: 11,637

San Francisco County

* Hit-and-runs: 1,691

* Killed or injured: 1,089

* Total accidents: 8,481

Ventura County

* Hit-and-runs: 1,489

* Killed or injured: 496

* Total accidents: 9,136

Fatalities

Here are the five states with the most deaths occurring in hit-and-run crashes in 1992. State: Hit-and-Run Deaths California: 331 Texas: 156 New York: 138 Florida: 134 Illinois: 70 Sources: California Highway Patrol, LAPD, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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