Around 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, Seamus O’Bryan clocked out at the Old Globe Theatre, where he worked as a prop master.
At 32, O’Bryan had seen the world, even sailed to remote islands to help build clinics and deliver medical supplies. But for now, San Diego was home. And this was going to be a good night. His friend, Peter Newbigin, was visiting from Australia.
O’Bryan got on his motorcycle and picked up Newbigin, who rode on the back. The two planned to park the bike at O’Bryan’s house, then walk to a bar. But as they drove down University Avenue in North Park, in a blink, everything changed.
Newbigin suddenly felt O’Byran’s muscles go tense, and peeked around his friend’s helmet to see white, rushing headlights. A moment later, they were tumbling across the pavement.
Newbigin stood up immediately and saw the white sedan – which had been traveling in the wrong lane – stop briefly, then turn left and speed out of sight.
Emergency dispatch phone lines lit up. Multiple witnesses had called in the crash. But four minutes later, when San Diego police units arrived at the scene, O’Bryan lay motionless. He was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead at 1:06 a.m.
Back in North Park, a light rain was falling when an investigator from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office arrived at the accident scene. She saw the few remaining items scattered on the street: a scarf, a pair of black gloves, a blood-soaked pea coat.
Detectives chased leads, but were never able to track down the driver of that white sedan. And they were about to get a lot busier.
Between 2008 and 2012, the most recent data California Highway Patrol makes available, there were more than 17,000 hit-and-run collisions countywide. Almost 7,000 people were injured in those instances, and 57 people died.
Overall, the total number of hit-and-run cases hasn’t jumped considerably, said Officer Mark McCullough in the San Diego Police Department’s traffic division.
But when we zero in on the most egregious cases, the times when pedestrians or bicyclists are hit and left to die, data from the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office tell a different story.
In San Diego County, 11 pedestrians or bicyclists have been hit and killed this year by drivers who fled the scene, the data show. That’s already one more death than the average for five previous years, which is 10. And it’s only June.
An official from the San Diego Police Department said that out of the six fatal hit-and-runs that have happened within the city of San Diego since January, only one has been solved.
O’Bryan’s death seemed to trigger a string of recent tragedies.
Back in February, NBC 7 called the spike in hit-and-runs an “epidemic,” and listed three deaths that happened in quick succession.
Three days after O’Bryan was killed, 23-year-old Benjamin Ramirez died in Escondido while walking home from his job at Albertsons. Less than a week later, 81-year-old Alonso Flores Pacheco was hit and killed in front of his son in San Ysidro. None of those drivers has been found.
Similar stories trickle out every week: Some brief and clinical – “Police seek driver in San Ysidro fatal hit-run” and some heart-breakingly specific: “Man Mourns Roommate Killed in Hit and Run, Seeks Reunion with Dog,” “UCSD Professor Struck by Car, Dies in Husband’s Arms.”
A sampling of some other headlines from the past few months:
McCullough takes a more stoic view of the recent trend.
“Traffic collisions are cyclical,’ he said. “Stats are going to go up, and when they do go up, they make the news, and we go out and take a reactive stance. Then they go back down. We might have something to do with that, or we might not,” McCullough said.
When a victim is injured or killed, raising the severity of the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony, police devote more resources to solving the cases.
Chasing down leads can overwhelm the six detectives assigned to the traffic division. Like every division of the Police Department, McCullough said, budget constraints make for a thin and overburdened staff. Detectives juggle a stack of cases each day, which include misdemeanor traffic cases as well as felonies, like hit-and-run fatalities.
And the scatter-shot locations of where the crimes occur makes it nearly impossible to predict where they will happen next, he said.
Paint chips, a broken car mirror, eyewitnesses, surveillance footage – any of it can become a lead. But often there’s not much to go on. And the longer a case goes cold, the more difficult it is to solve.
“I’m looking down at this data from the last couple of years and there’s just no set pattern. With burglaries or robberies, a guy goes out and hits the same kinds of places, some patterns emerge. We don’t have any of that with traffic,” McCullough said.
Red-light cameras (which the city no longer uses) and license plate readers could help solve cases after the fact, but they can’t prevent the crimes. “There’s not a whole lot we can do as a law enforcement agency to go out and stop hit-and-runs from happening,” he said.
Family members interviewed by VOSD uniformly expressed a desire for justice and closure, knowing that they might never find either.
Nothing is known about those who escape police and remain in the shadows. Theories abound: Maybe the driver was an immigrant who fled to avoid deportation. Perhaps the driver was sadistic and out for a dark thrill. They probably lacked a moral conscience.
The San Diego Police Department said it doesn’t track cases once they go to court, so it can’t provide information on the most common reason for the crimes.
But local attorney Paul Pfingst, who served eight years as San Diego County district attorney, said alcohol is the most common factor in felony hit-and-run cases. Others include driving without a license or insurance or fleeing to avoid being sued.
California law states that any time drivers don’t identify themselves before leaving the scene after an accident – when they hit property or a person – they’re guilty of a hit-and-run. The difference between a misdemeanor and felony hit-and-run depends on whether someone was injured.
Sometimes people panic and have a lapse in judgment. In those cases, a person’s punishment might depend on whether they knew they had injured someone, or if stopping to help might have saved a victim’s life, Pfingst said.
Proving the driver knew they hit someone and drove away anyway is a challenge for prosecutors. In 2010, after Lisa Hutchinson hit and killed 18-year-old Steven Kelley in Carlsbad, then drove away, she was sentenced to probation and community service.
Just weeks prior, prosecutors declined to charge a 92-year-old man who hit and killed 15-year-old Lucas Giaconelli in Vista. The man later told authorities he didn’t stop because he assumed he’d hit an owl.
If the person behind the wheel was driving negligently, he or she could also be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
If there’s no alcohol involved but the person fled, the standard sentence countywide for a hit-and-run is six months to a year in jail and subsequent probation, Pfingst said. But punishments usually skyrocket if alcohol or drugs were involved.
For example, when repeat DUI offender Alan Lester Mabrey, killed 24-year-old Emily Dowdy in 2009 after he’d been drinking, he was sentenced to 20 years to life.
The disparity in punishment can offer a perverse incentive for drivers to flee.
In 2009, when 23-year-old Nicoll Koval killed Albert Holman on a rainy night in Rancho Peñasquitos, she left the scene. When she turned herself in to authorities the next day, investigators found an empty can of malt liquor in her car, and saw the victim’s shoe dangling from the car’s undercarriage.
Despite that evidence, the court couldn’t prove she’d been drunk at the time of the crash. She pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run. She was sentenced to a year in jail, but served less than eight months. She was later arrested for trying to smuggle drugs into a county jail.
O’Bryan would have turned 33 last week. His dad, Bert O’Bryan, said his son had always been the “belly-laugh of the family” for his ability to change the energy in the room and make the family smile. He doesn’t want people to hear any feelings of anger or resentment coming from him or Seamus’ mom, Marty O’Bryan.
“We’re all going to die,” Bert said. “Ultimately, what matters isn’t how we die, but how we lived. And Seamus enjoyed life. He truly lived. If there’s any sadness in this, it’s in thinking what might have been.”
“But even after all that, I would still like to know. It’s not that we think what happened is OK. But we’re not going to run from this and let it ruin the rest of our lives,” he said.
Sadness has clung to the family. Bert and Marty, who live in Phoenix, lost another son who suffered from mental illness and eventually took his own life last year.
“There are no words,” Bert said. “And that’s OK.”
Bert doesn’t want to lionize his son, or make him larger than life. “We tend to take our superheroes and put them up on a pedestal and pretty soon we forget about them,” he told friends and family at a memorial service in the days following Seamus’ death.
He prefers to think of his son as extraordinary, he said, with an emphasis on ordinary. Because that’s the part that helps him remember and connect to and learn from his son.
Then, Bert asked family and friends to close their eyes and imagine themselves on a boat with his son – sitting on the ship’s deck with Seamus during night-watch. The boat is rocking and the stars are out. Everything is quiet.