September 6, 2008

In grief, husband asks: Who left wife for dead?

Hit-and-runs leave families with unanswered questions
By Tony Plohetski

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

On the night she died, Linda O'Bryan had worked a late shift at a Northwest Austin pharmacy and decided to walk to her apartment about a mile away.

The 58-year-old beauty adviser had been without a car since an accident months earlier and had told her husband that the route, with unlit spots and heavy traffic along the way, sometimes made her nervous. The couple often talked by phone until she got home.

O'Bryan had been walking only a few minutes when a car slammed into her in the bike lane along Steck Avenue.

She lay fatally injured in the street. The driver kept going.

"Maybe she could have survived it had someone helped her a lot quicker," said her husband, Jack O'Bryan.

O'Bryan, a truck driver, was on the road in the Northeast that night in July. He tried calling his wife's cell phone during the time that he thought she would be walking. Then, he frantically called their apartment for the next several hours. Finally, at 2 a.m., an Austin police officer answered and told him what had happened.

In his grief, O'Bryan has been left with two questions: Who left his wife for dead and why?


11 killed so far this year

O'Bryan was the 10th person killed in 2008 in a crime that haunts families and law enforcement officials alike: hit-and-runs in which the seriously injured or dead are abandoned along a road, sometimes for hours until someone sees them and calls 911. Those killed this year have included pedestrians, motorcyclists and passengers.

An 11th hit-and-run fatality happened early Thursday morning, when motorcyclist Eric Laufer was struck by a vehicle on U.S. 183 in North Austin.

Austin had 151 hit-and-runs that caused injury or death through July 28. In each of the previous two years, there were 286.

"It's a significant problem," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. "Not only is it a public safety issue, but it is a quality of life issue. People need to know when they are involved in a crash that hopefully the person is going to stop and identify themselves."

Investigators say they are generally left with few clues to solve the cases. They use traditional investigation work — talking to witnesses and body shop owners, for instance — as well as what they call "vehicle DNA" — such as a broken headlight, a side mirror or paint fragments — to try to figure out the identity of drivers.

Detectives said they ask suspects why they didn't call 911 to report a crash or stop to help a victim.

The suspects often reply that they had been drinking, that their driver's licenses were suspended or that they did not have insurance, detectives say. Some also cite their immigration status.

"Generally, in a moment, someone makes a very bad decision," said Sgt. Kris Thompson, who works in the Austin Police Department's vehicular homicide unit. "They think, 'Oh, nobody sees me, I'm OK.' "

Vehicular homicide Detective Adrian Duran said, "I've heard pretty much every excuse there is. I think the majority of times, people just panic."

Loved ones of the dead, including O'Bryan, say they not only face sudden loss but are also consumed with questions about how a motorist could hit a person and then drive away.

"It shatters families," said Tello Leal, an Austin police victims services counselor assigned to the vehicular homicide unit. "It changes everything you know, every way you see the world. It's devastating."

James D. Kings, the 17-year-old son of James Kings, a Dallas-area minister, was killed in March in a hit-and-run along Interstate 35 while in Austin for a school trip.

"It's just been unthinkable, just unimaginable," Kings said. "Obviously, I've lost my son, and there's anger that the person didn't stop, just thought so little of human life."

Police have not solved that case.

Of the 11 fatal cases this year, police have made arrests in six. Most of the suspects have been charged with failure to stop and render aid, a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In cases in which investigators think they can prove that drivers were reckless or were driving drunk, the charges may be more severe.

In some cases, witnesses helped catch suspects. Hours after Fermin Vences, 20, was killed while crossing North Lamar Boulevard, authorities arrested and charged Edgar Soria-Palacios, 20. A man saw what happened, followed Soria-Palacios home and then reported his whereabouts to police. Officers went to Soria-Palacios' house and found damage to the hood and windshield of his car, an arrest affidavit said. Court records did not include a statement from Soria-Palacios.

In another case this year, a man driving a Ryder truck struck and killed a motorcyclist in the 8000 block of N. I-35, police said.

A man sent by Ryder to repair a blown-out tire and damage to the rear of the truck found a shoe in the bumper, blood and flesh and called police, an arrest affidavit said. Jimmie Roger Stanley, 47, was arrested and charged with failure to stop and render aid. Court documents did not include a statement from Stanley.

Short of such informants, detectives rely on luck, or the chance that drivers will tell other people about their crimes.


Couple met in church

They met 16 years ago at church.

Jack O'Bryan, now 49, had recently moved to Austin from Colorado Springs, Colo., and was sitting in a pew in front of the woman who would become his wife a year later. Both had previous marriages.

He said he was first captivated by her singing.

"I heard her voice behind me in the congregation, and I turned around and looked at her," he said. "I spoke to her, and our friendship grew."

O'Bryan said he was also attracted to his wife's personality; she diplomatically, yet sternly put family members, friends or strangers in their place when she felt disrespected.

He said they shared a common faith. They had wanted to buy a home together and hoped to travel to Italy. Linda O'Bryan had long been mesmerized by Venice's gondolas.

On the day of his wife's death, Jack O'Bryan said, she had begun planning a dream-come-true: She scheduled a two-week vacation to see her three grandchildren. Linda O'Bryan has a son from her previous marriage.

"There was nothing she would not do for them," O'Bryan said. "That's how a grandmother should be."

Jack O'Bryan flew to Austin from Baltimore the morning after his wife's death to make funeral arrangements.

"My life from that day forward has been indescribable," he said. "Without her, my life each day seems so empty."


Keeping a grief journal

Since his wife's death, O'Bryan has driven by the crash site several times each week.

He often gets out of the car and studies the area. He has done his own accident reconstruction, making notes of what he thinks happened: how the driver jumped a curb, drove 10 yards, hit a sign and then swerved back off the curb, hitting his wife from behind and throwing her about 20 yards into the street.

He has begun journaling about his grief, about how he can't sleep at night and how he can't stop thinking about the driver who kept going.

"As long as you run from this, you are my enemy," he wrote. "Turn yourself in and bring a closure to this matter, and when you do, though I totally despise what you did and how you reacted to it, I will look you in the eyes and tell you I forgive you, but you absolutely MUST come forward."

He also regularly calls the detective assigned to the case for updates.

"That just reminds me that I'm not just dealing with another case," Detective Richard Harrington said. "I'm dealing with a person."

Harrington said last week that investigators have impounded a car that could have killed Linda O'Bryan and are doing a forensic exam on it. He said the owner of the car, whom he declined to identify, gave an account about how the car was damaged that made him suspicious.

Jack O'Bryan has also aggressively pursued media coverage to keep what happened to his wife in the public's mind.

He hopes that one day, someone will come forward with information about what happened.

Until then, he said, he will keep driving by the spot where his wife died.

"I think about her last minutes on Earth, and I say, 'I'm going to find out who did this,' " he said.

tplohetski@statesman.com; 445-3605

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