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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : Hit-and-Run Cases Turn Up No Good News

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One horrific week in May, hit-and-run drivers in the east San Fernando Valley struck and killed three pedestrians--two of them children--in two accidents within five days.

The first victims were 12-year-old Amalia Godoy and her mother, Maria, 48, killed crossing a busy Pacoima intersection where neighbors had long pleaded for a traffic signal.

In the second accident, 7-year-old Skyy Nelson was killed as he ran across a Panorama City street to an ice cream truck.

The driver accused of killing Amalia and Maria Godoy surrendered to police about four hours later.

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But the man who hit young Skyy Nelson so hard the boy was knocked out of his shoes--and then sped away laughing--is still at large.

That’s typical for hit-and-run killers, who police say are caught only about half the time.

Which is not good news because the number of hit-run deaths is rising in the San Fernando Valley.

So far this year, 46 people have died in hit-and-run accidents on Valley surface streets, compared to 35 in the same period last year, a 31% increase.

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“No one seems to have an explanation for it,” said Detective John Miller of the LAPD’s Valley Traffic Division. “We had a lot right around the earthquake, like one every other day in January.”

The Los Angeles Police Department does not keep records on how many hit-run cases are solved. But the commanders of its four traffic divisions estimated earlier this year that detectives catch the drivers in only about 50% of cases.

Injuries are also up. Nearly 300 more people were hurt by hit-and-run drivers in the first six months of 1994 than in the same period a year ago.

Many hit-and-run drivers who turn themselves in do so out of remorse, or the hope police will go easier on them.

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These drivers are usually “just ordinary people” who fled because “they panic or they don’t have a driver’s license or insurance or maybe it’s a borrowed car,” Miller said.

And, detectives sometimes get lucky, even when a hit-and-run driver is a habitual criminal.

That happened about two weeks ago, when police were able to nab a suspected drunk driver charged with hitting and seriously injuring a family of seven.

In a car left at the scene was a membership card for the North Hollywood YMCA belonging to Ronald Lee Gerton, 55. When he showed up there a few days later, Miller and his partner, Detective Gregg Pfeifle , collared him.

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“It’s relatively rare that we get such good information we can just go out and arrest somebody,” Miller said.

Instead, the trail often cools quickly, as it has in the case of young Nelson.

“The investigation is continuing, but the clues are few and far between,” said Miller. “We had some real good clues in the beginning, but witnesses were not able to identify the suspect or the vehicle.

“It was a common car, a black Volkswagen Jetta or that type,” he said. “When we showed them Ford Escorts or Toyotas, which are similar, they said it could be that too.”

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The boy’s grandmother calls Miller every couple of weeks hoping her grandson’s killer has been found. So far, no news, even though the Los Angeles City Council has offered a $10,000 reward for the killer. An artist’s rendering of a suspect, described by witnesses as a Latino about 26 years old, is shown above.

Police said the boy’s 3-year-old sister was also in the street when Skyy was run down in the 900 block of Tobias Avenue in Van Nuys, but luckily she was not injured. The family had moved to the crowded neighborhood just one day before the tragic incident.

In another unsolved hit-and-run case, the City Council offered a $25,000 reward Friday for information leading to the arrest of a motorist who killed an 80-year-old Sherman Oaks woman.

Selma Labovitz was struck by a beige or tan Chevy Nova on July 5 as she walked to her car from the 99 Cents Only Store on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood.

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Those with information about either killing can call San Fernando Valley traffic detectives at (818) 756-8391.


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