Every time Wendy Granados called a Los Angeles Police Department detective for an update, she would receive the same response. There were no leads in the search for the person who had killed her 38-year-old sister, Kiesha Saravia, and her unborn child in a South L.A. hit-and-run in July.
She shouldn’t lose hope, officers told her, but it could take months or years to solve a case. Eventually, Granados began checking in less frequently.
Then about two weeks ago, while she was on the freeway, a detective called. They had arrested a 21-year-old man who had confessed to be the driver of the vehicle.
“I was just driving and crying,” Granados said. “I told myself, ‘gracias a Dios.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s so young.’”
The arrest reflects the challenging and tedious work that goes into solving hit-and-run collisions. Many leave few clues to go on, and families can wait for long periods of time while officers work to identify the suspects. The crashes often occur late at night with no witnesses, and video footage showing a car flash by may be too grainy to decipher a license plate.
Fatal hit-and-runs have been on the upswing citywide, climbing from 52 in 2017 to 62 in 2019. In the LAPD’s South Bureau, an area that last year accounted for about 40% of L.A.’s fatal hit-and-runs, officers are focused on spreading awareness that stopping to render aid can save lives and encouraging witnesses to share information that can help solve these crimes.
Of the bureau’s 25 fatal hit-and-runs last year, officials have made arrests in 10.
“We’re pushing hard on really getting the word out … if they see something, then say something,” said South Traffic Division Capt. Jon Pinto, who held a news conference Thursday in the Broadway-Manchester neighborhood where the collision had occurred to announce the arrest of the suspect.
Saravia grew up in South L.A. and was the mother of five children — the oldest now 15 and the youngest 6. She had worked as a secretary at her brother’s trucking business.
She was outgoing and had an optimistic personality, Granados said. She often cooked aguachile, a Mexican shellfish dish, and would invite her siblings over for barbecues on her frontyard.
“There’s a lot of people who wait to barbecue on the weekends — she wasn’t that type of person,” Granados said.
About 10 p.m. July 26, Saravia was headed home with her boyfriend and one of her children after a Target shopping run to buy baby jumpers and mittens. She was struck while crossing 117th Street by a vehicle traveling northbound on Main Street. Saravia was taken to a hospital, where her baby was delivered via C-section. Both she and the newborn died of their injuries.
From the onset, Det. Michael Flannery and his partners had few leads to find the driver. There was no video of the collision, which occurred just before a freeway overpass. The only witnesses were two family members who could recall only seeing a light-colored car.
Flannery knocked on doors in the neighborhood and collected video from businesses and residences up and down the street. He spent hundreds of hours tracking cars, scouring the footage for anything that looked suspicious, such as a driver speeding or swerving.
“Sometimes you’re watching the cameras, and after you do this for a while you see something out of the ordinary,” he said. “We didn’t see anything.”
The public’s help can be key to solving hit-and-run cases. In 2019, the LAPD received 109 hit-and-run-related tips through Crime Stoppers, an anonymous tip service that offers rewards to people who provide information leading to arrests. Six hit-and-run tips led to arrests.
Police depend on the news media’s help to publicize these cases. But a collision might not make the news if there’s something more newsworthy happening, officials said.
The break in the Saravia case came last month, when the LAPD was passed a lead from a tipster who had watched a news conference the department held after the fatal collision. On Feb. 27, police arrested South L.A. resident Cristian Mendoza Orellana, 21, on suspicion of a felony hit-and-run. Prosecutors have charged Orellana, who is being held on $4-million bail, with two counts of second-degree murder.
Flannery said he suspected that Orellana, who had been driving with friends, was under the influence of nitrous oxide, a drug also known as “laughing gas.”
Though the arrest brought relief to Saravia’s family, it also reopened wounds they’ve been trying to heal. Saravia was due to give birth to her sixth child, whom she had planned to name Lyiah, the week after her death. Her five children, who used to all live with her, now reside with their respective fathers.
Every Friday — the day that the crash occurred — brings Saravia’s mother, Maria Graciela Saravia, painful memories of her daughter’s death.
“My daughter is resting in peace, but even though they have the person who did it, they’re not going to bring her back,” she said.