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Update: This Is What Happens in Los Angeles When a Pedestrian Gets Hit By a Car

1:28 PM PDT on August 6, 2020

    March 10, 2020—I stood in shock, under the fluorescent glow of a strip mall on a busy corner in Historic Filipinotown. “Get off me!” An elderly man screamed a few feet in front of me—after a silver BMW with a busted headlight blindly reversed out of a parking spot—pinning the man to the ground.

    “Get the f*ck off me!” The man pleaded again, before the driver inched forward, freeing him from the underbelly of his car.

    After initially getting out to help the victim, within minutes the driver was back in his BMW fleeing down Beverly Boulevard. When the Los Angeles Fire Department arrived the injured man screamed in pain as the paramedics cut off his pants. “Did he get pinned to the ground or did his foot just get run over?” One of the firefighters asked me while paramedics attended to the victim.

    The agonizing cries continued as the man was loaded into an ambulance and driven to a hospital—days before the mayor ordered the city to shelter at home—while most of his belongings were left in the parking lot. I gave the LAPD the drivers’ license plate number and told them what happened. They gave me the number to the central traffic division to follow up.

    When you get hit by a car in Los Angeles, the cops don’t just jump in their cars and chase after the bad guys. If you’re lucky enough to survive, you wait.

    The following day I called the Central Traffic Division. The officer I spoke to had no knowledge of a hit and run in Historic Filipinotown the night before and said they were still working on cases from January. They told me it could take weeks before the case hit their desk. When it did, they would run the license plate number and make contact with the registered owner of the BMW and witnesses.

    I didn’t hear from anybody for weeks. Meanwhile the sound of the man screaming haunted me. Every time I crossed the street I was reminded of the dangers of being a pedestrian or cyclist in Los Angeles. There are hundreds of hit and runs each year involving pedestrians across the city and many more that go unreported. 

    A week later I heard of another unhoused man that was run over by a car near Echo Park Lake. The man survived but sustained serious injuries. “He was all bloody,” described the person that told me about the hit and run.

    A couple of weeks after that, I witnessed a second hit and run while I was walking my dog. A driver lost control of a beat-up sedan half a block ahead of me and reversed into a parked car directly across from my apartment, narrowly missing a pedestrian. The driver tossed a 16-ounce can of flavored malt liquor out of the passenger window before forcing their misaligned tires west on Beverly Boulevard.

    Two weeks after the incident in front of the liquor store, I got an early morning phone call from Detective La Fleur of the Central Traffic Division. La Fleur told me the victim broke his leg, which made the hit and run a felony. “Unfortunately he appears to be homeless so I don’t have an address or even a phone number for him at this point.”

    When you get hit by a car in Los Angeles, the cops don’t just jump in their cars and chase after the bad guys, if you’re lucky enough to survive, you wait.

    None of the cops or firefighters that responded to the hit and run got a name out of the victim. “It’s pretty complicated to get [their name] from the hospital. Generally, unless they’re a suspect we can’t get that information,” said La Fleur. “Unfortunately these things take a while. They don’t happen quickly.” 

    I returned to the parking lot where the man was hit often to pick up essential supplies from the liquor store. My friend Rubal, one of the managers of the store had been inundated with business ever since the coronavirus hit. The man who got hit was also a regular customer at the liquor store so I asked Rubal to keep an eye out for him.

    Nearly a month after the hit and run, I stopped by the store one day and when I walked in Rubal pointed to a man outside in a wheelchair. “I had the most miserable time,” 67-year-old Lionel Morales said in his unmistakable raspy drawl when we reconnected. Confined to mostly a wheelchair at the time, Morales was a shadow of the man I saw in March, after spending almost a month in and out of care.

    We spoke just a few steps away from where he was run over, again under that familiar fluorescent glow.

    After the hit and run Morales was transferred to UCLA medical center where he says he underwent an emergency procedure on his leg. Morales lifted up the bottom of the baggy pants that the hospital gave him to reveal a deep mango shaped laceration near his knee. He recalled the heat and force of the underbelly of the car and later being able to see the inside of his leg at the hospital before refusing anesthesia when the doctors told him he needed immediate care.

    “Sorry you had to see that,” Morales said repeatedly after showing me his leg. A month after the incident, Morales bandages needed to be changed every couple of days at the VA hospital.

    After spending about a week at UCLA, Morales was moved to a convalescent home near downtown where he struggled to walk, go to the bathroom and clean himself. He told me he was bedridden so long that he started having problems with his back and kidneys.

    A month after the incident he still had problems walking. Before the hit and run, he already struggled with a foot drop, a condition that causes the paralyzation of the foot. Still, Morales admits, he loves to dance and once had a fondness for golf, table tennis, and handball. “I’m not the type of person that sits still,” Morales said.

    “I’ve been here all my life, I’m from San Gabriel.”

    Morales grew up in a big military family. When he came of age, the third generation San Gabriel Valley native, followed in the footsteps of his brothers and cousins, joining the army during the tail end of Vietnam. “Some came home, some didn’t,” Morales said of his family members, “fucking war.”

    Morales and his four siblings still own the single-family home in Alhambra that they grew up in, which he refers to as, “headquarters.” “That’s home, that’s the heart of the family. Everybody has their own house but if there’s something special going on, or if the family has to meet for a certain reason, we always meet at home. We used to call it mom and dad’s house.” Morales’ parents have since passed on.

    I wrestled with the decision to involve myself in the case but when it came time to point out the driver, I had no doubt in my mind.

    Morales has been in and out of homelessness for years despite the fact that his name is on the deed to his parents’ house. Still, he was labeled homeless by LAPD investigator La Fleur.  I gave Morales Detective La Fleur’s number before we split up. He told me he would call him the next day. “Thank you, Lex,” he kept saying. “I’m never going to stop thanking you.”

    After months with no updates, La Fleur asked me to identify the driver that ran over Morales in a photographic line up presented to me on a piece of paper. We met at the McDonalds parking lot, one block away from where Morales was run over in March. I wrestled with the decision to involve myself in the case but when it came time to point out the driver, I had no doubt in my mind.

    On May 1, nearly two months after Lionel Morales was run over, Detective La Fleur concluded his investigation and submitted his findings to the DA’s office, without ever interviewing Morales, despite the fact that I saw him all the time.

    In the end, Morales didn’t last long at the hotel. According to Morales, the room was all the way on the westside, miles away from the tight-knit community of Historic Filipinotown where Morales spends most of his time. Within weeks he was back on the street.

    On August 3, 2020, Morales turned 68-years old. As of August 5, 2020, I still haven’t heard from the DA’s office regarding Morales’ case and nobody from the LAPD or DA’s office has spoken to Morales directly. “I tell people I’m doing better but I’m not,” Morales told me on Tuesday. 

    In September 2019, Curbed LA reported that there were over 100,000 hit and run cases in L.A. between 2014 and 2018. Fewer than 16,000 drivers were arrested in that time period and the District Attorney’s Office only won convictions on 169 cases. 

    Since Morales has never heard from the LAPD regarding the arrest of the person that ran him over in March he often wonders what happened to the suspect. “I bet he thinks he got away with it,” Morales told me recently.

    Update October 14, 2020: L.A Taco obtained a copy of the District Attorney's charge evaluation worksheet which briefly outlines why prosecutors declined to charge the driver:

    "Defendant backed up out of a parking stall and struck Victim, causing a possible broken leg. Defendant claims to have given Victim aid. Witness Ray corroborates that Defendant got out and assisted Victim. Problem is that Victim is homeless and I/O has been unable to locate. There is also no video and injury has been unverified. Filing is rejected."

    Update October 9, 2020: L.A. Taco learned through a public records request that on May 12, 2020, the District Attorney's office declined to charge the driver that ran over Morales and fled.

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