Local News

Technology helping to better solve hit and runs

Posted July 27, 2009 6:10 p.m. EDT
Updated January 23, 2014 12:57 p.m. EST

— It was early evening on Jan. 7, 2004, when 16-year-old Josh Davis called his father to let him know he was on his way home.

He had been at his cousin's house two blocks away, doing bodywork on a car, his father, Dave Davis, recalls.

About 15 minutes later, the elder Davis received a phone call. Josh, he was told, might have been hit by car.

"That's always one thing that bugs me, I could have picked him up," Davis said.

For years, the case baffled family and Garner police investigators . The state medical examiner could not definitively say what killed Josh or whether his death was accidental. Police looked at all possible angles, including murder.

It wasn't until three years later that they – with the help of the State Bureau of Investigation and a private forensics firm – were able to conclude that a vehicle struck Josh as he walked along Hall Boulevard toward his house.

The case, however, remains unsolved, and there are few answers for Dave Davis . He says he has learned to cope.

"It would make a difference that we know, but it's not going to make a difference, because he's not coming back. You learn to live without knowing," he said.

Since 2005, there have been 62,502 hit-and-runs reported in North Carolina, according to state Department of Transportation. (View county-by-county statistics.) It's unclear how many of those were fatal or remain unsolved since the DOT doesn't track those statistics.

Raleigh police officer Eric Sweden says that because they are random, hit-and-run cases are some of the most difficult to solve. As time goes by, as in the Davis case, they become more difficult.

"I'll be honest with you. If they don't get solved in a couple days, the chances go down after that," Sweden said. "It will rain and wash DNA off the suspect vehicle. You give somebody enough time, they will replace the parts to their car."

Sweden is one of three full-time police officers assigned to the Raleigh Police Department's Crash Reconstruction Team, which is dedicated to understanding crashes and solving fatal hit-and-runs.

Technology, training and specialized attention to hit-and-runs, he says, is helping solve such cases more quickly.

"Instead of using a tape measure, we can measure (a crash) scene with a laser. That laser will be put into special software so that we can animate everything that happened based on the evidence we have," Sweden said.

Surveillance videos also helps, and witnesses with cell phones can pass along what they see quicker to authorities.

"If they give me one letter, three letters, two numbers of a license plate and a general description of what happened, that helps us," Sweden said.

In the past year, there have been three fatal hit-and-run cases in Raleigh. All of them, Sweden says, resulted in arrests within days.

In the March 11 hit-and-run death of Lewis Avery Gray on Falls of Neuse Road, for example, a Chevrolet emblem found at the scene, along with paint chips, surveillance video and witness interviews ultimately led to an officer on his regular beat check to spotting a 2003 Chevrolet passenger van that had heavy front-end damage.

Carlos David Rodriguez-Buatista, 39, was arrested and charged in Avery's death. Police say he was the first of four vehicles to strike the 71-year-old, who died at the scene.

"(Technology) helps us once we find the car. It's going to be straight-up police work that puts this case together," Sweden said. "The added technology – the computer, the simulations, the lasers, the matching paint chips, none of that works until somebody gets the suspect car."

"What it comes down to, years ago we didn't have the training, we didn't have the resources. We didn't have the technology," Sweden added. "We have that now. So we do a lot better at solving these cases."

At the scene where Josh Davis was killed, however, there was no evidence, no witnesses and nothing to help investigators.

Dave Davis knows it will be difficult to solve but still hopes for a break in the case.

"At least one person knows. Maybe that person's just been quiet about it, but I believe at least one person knows," Davis said.

"It has to be that they're afraid. I mean, what else would there be, right?" he added.

"If the police would come out and say, 'Hey, just come over, let's get this solved, we'll be as light as we can on you.' We don't really care if they spend a day in jail. Just come and let us know what happened."