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Friday, June 6, 2008

Police search for hit-run driver


Gabrielle Lee 11, right, was killed crossing Whalley Avenue; VW Jetta sought
Photo courtesy of WTNH


By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— The laundromat where 11-year-old Gabrielle Lee’s parents were washing clothes Wednesday evening is no more than 1½ blocks from their Westville home on the other side of Whalley Avenue.
The fifth-grader died while crossing that street, and police Thursday were searching for the hit-and-run driver who fled, leaving her for dead.
Police Lt. Joe Witkowski said the investigation is progressing with urgency, and investigators would interview witnesses and complete accident diagrams in coming days and weeks. But one thing took immediate precedence.
“Our big focus today is we’re trying to find the car through all these different avenues, through (Department of) Motor Vehicles, through body shops, a whole bunch of different things,” Witkowski said.
Some people already had called in about Volkswagens with front-end damage, and officers were following up on those leads.
“We ask anybody in the public, whether they’re an auto body shop or somebody who just sees a car, sees a Volkswagen Jetta with some heavy front-end damage, to just contact us,” Witkowski said.
A plastic piece that broke off the fleeing car’s bumper helped police determine the car is a dark-colored Jetta built between 1999 and 2005.
Gabrielle died at Yale-New Haven Hospital a few hours after she was struck on Whalley Avenue near Davis Street in front of the Top Kat Laundromat. She lives with her family on nearby Fairfield Street, and they were returning to the business to pick up laundry, police said.
Gabrielle was a student at the Elm City College Prep, a New Haven charter school. Clinicians from Yale Child Student Center and grief counselors were at the school Thursday, and also at Benjamin Jepson School in Fair Haven Heights which she used to attend.
Family members declined comment Thursday outside of their house, as did an official with Elm City College Prep. Jepson School sent a letter home to parents informing them of Gabrielle’s death.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” said Belinda Whitfield, who was picking up her daughter at Elm City College Prep Thursday afternoon. She knows the Lees because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and attend her Kingdom Hall.
A witness reported the Jetta might have been racing another car, but Witkowski said, while investigators hadn’t ruled anything out, “no one has contacted us with that information.”
A general lack of civility on New Haven roads in New Haven has generated chatter on social networking Web sites, blogs and among area bicycle advocacy groups. The last pedestrian killed in the city was in April, when Yale Medical School student Mila Rainof was struck on S. Frontage Road near the medical school.
For years, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has been among local officials calling for traffic camera legislation that would allow municipalities to mail tickets to owners of vehicles caught running red lights. Police don’t know whether the fleeing motorist had a red light Wednesday, but Witkowski said traffic light violations and speed are probably the biggest problems for police at Whalley and Davis. Hit-and-run accidents are a big problem across the city, he said.
In an average year, there are 8,000 motor vehicle accidents in the city and, over the last three years, 22 percent of those involved one of the drivers fleeing the scene, he said.
“That’s kind of a staggering number and the reason is probably ... that people don’t have licenses, their license is already suspended, the car’s not registered, it’s uninsured — all of those reasons, and when something does happen, they flee the scene,” he said. “It’s something that we have to deal with in an urban area.”
Last year alone, police issued 3,000 violations for driving without a license or driving with a suspended license, he said.
Ella Blackwell, who was working the counter Thursday at the Top Kat, said the owner opened three years ago at that location because it was a high-traffic area. She said the employee working Wednesday night had called her, shaken, in the aftermath of the accident and told her what happened.
“Her parents were in here doing laundry and the little girl was crossing the street and the car hit her,” Blackwell said.
Police asked anyone who sees a Jetta with significant front-end damage, or possibly a broken windshield, to call police at 946-8584 or 946-6304.

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