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Denver police frustrated by number of unsolved hit and run accidents


By Colleen O'Connor and Joey Bunch
The Denver Post

On a cold and snowy night last March, Zama Bee was walking her two boys home from Friday night services at a mosque, ready to feed them dinner.

But close to home, these refugees from Burma were hit by a sport utility vehicle going so fast that the oldest boy, 8-year-old Za May Khan, was killed instantly, his body so mangled it could be identified only through dental records. His younger brother, 6-year-old Ah Zet Khan, died shortly afterward at a hospital, in the arms of his aunt.

"We had a lot of hope when we first came to the United States with our two boys," said Bee, through a translator. "But after this, we feel lost."

The hit-and-run driver who killed her boys was among the one in five motorists in Denver who drive away after killing or injuring others. Despite traffic cameras, instant public notifications, sophisticated investigations and new, tougher laws, police remain frustrated by the dozens of hit-and-run cases, including the one involving the Khans, that might never be solved.

And the clock is ticking. Investigators are in a race against time to file charges before the statute of limitations expires on such cases — even the ones involving death.

Bee, whose sons died March 22, doesn't hear about the other hit-and-runs because she can't afford television and can't understand English. She is isolated and mostly alone, her parents and nine siblings still in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Here, it's just Bee and her husband, who rarely comes out of the bedroom, too depressed to look for work.

Their sons were their only children — their future — and now it is gone.

"We had a plan, and now it is ruined," she said. "The purpose of coming to America was a better education for the children, so that one day we would not be so poor. They would help their parents learn English, and about American culture."

She was hospitalized after the collision with a broken leg and arm. She is still in physical therapy, but the emotional wounds are much worse.

"I feel scared every time I cross the street or ride in a car," said Bee, who believes she will never feel safe until the killer is caught.

"Why is the driver still out there?" she said. "I am asking for anyone to help look for this guy, and for the police to try harder to find this person."

Investigations in vain

Denver police have exhausted ways to find Za May and Ah Zet's killer. The department circulated a grainy video hoping someone would recognize the SUV, but no one has claimed the $20,000 reward.

Investigators checked to see if the white or silver Cadillac Escalade or a similar SUV had a built-in navigational system, which police can sometimes use to find stolen cars, but nothing turned up.

They checked body shops that might have made repairs, and there were no cellphone signals pinged from the location at or near the time of the collision.

More than 100 tips were investigated, but none were strong enough for an arrest.

"A couple of vehicles were brought to our attention," said Sgt. Mike Farr, who leads the investigation. "Either they weren't involved, or one of the cars was involved, but evidence did not exist to positively identify with involvement."

Eleven months later, physical evidence has probably been altered or destroyed, Farr said, so everything depends on someone speaking up.

"Someone who was either in the car at the time, or talked to the driver who admitted it to them," he said.

Searches in high-profile cases such as this are exhaustive and sophisticated, said Lt. Rob Rock, the chief traffic investigator for the Denver Police Department.

Each day, Rock stops at the dry-marker whiteboard just outside his office to update the number of days left on 11 unsolved cases still within the statute of limitations for fatalities.

The Khan brothers' names are on the bottom of the board, etched in green.

Colorado puts a three-year statute of limitations on hit-and-run cases involving injuries and a five-year limit on those involving death.

The work of Rock's eraser is a constant reminder to investigators that time and justice are slipping away.

"Some of them, we're pretty well at the dead end," Rock said. "We're just waiting for that one person to come forward and say, 'I heard this ...' "

Besides good tips, there are two tools Rock needs most: more detectives and more time.

Rock's 14 traffic detectives work in shifts around the clock to investigate thousands of hit-and-run cases each year, as well as all police, fire and ambulance accidents, police chases and habitual traffic offender cases. Officers attend hours of training in investigative techniques each year. Some also do accident reconstruction analysis, and some testify as experts in trials, which takes them off the beat.

Rock's investigators were frustrated two months ago when time ran out to catch the hit-and-run driver who hit Laurie Gorham and killed her unborn child on Dec. 9, 2010.

She was 34 weeks pregnant when she was hit by a dark-colored SUV as she crossed a street in the Stapleton neighborhood.

"That driver got away from us," Rock said. "I wish he had to look over his shoulder the rest of his life to see if the police are coming to get him, but that's not the case."

A typical Friday

The last day Bee spent with her boys was a typical Friday. After the boys got home from school, she gave them a snack and a bath, then headed off to meet her extended family at a nearby mosque.

After prayers, her in-laws invited them to spend the night to avoid trekking the few blocks home in the snow, but Bee had dinner already prepared at home, and the boys wanted to sleep in their own beds.

Just before 8 p.m., Bee and the boys stepped into Yosemite Street at East 14th Avenue. The boys were riding in a stroller, despite their age, because Bee wanted to protect against them darting into traffic.

When sirens pierced the night, Bee's family ran outside to find her and the boys lying in the street. They'd been thrown from the stroller, which dragged from the SUV as it sped off, according to police.

Bee doesn't remember the accident, only coming to consciousness in the ambulance, and wondering where her sons were. At the hospital, to keep her spirits up, the family told her the boys were fine, safe at home.

But by Monday, the day before the funeral, hospital workers said she must be told while in the hospital, because grief counselors were nearby if needed.

Thu Malancea, lead case manager at the African Community Center, had to break the news, translating for the nurse.

"She didn't understand," Malancea said. " She kept saying, 'No, the children are at home,' because that is what the family told her. I had to say, 'Yes, at the time you got hit, the children didn't make it.' She kept asking me again and again, 'Is it true my children are gone?' "

In the months that followed, neither grief nor broken bones kept her from doing what she could to help find the killer. She and her husband, Amad Khan, sent a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, asking "respectfully that you use your full available resources to find the killer of our two beloved sons."

In May, she was still in a wheelchair when she attended the unveiling of a memorial sign with her sons' names on it, and she also participated in a June public appearance when Metro Denver Crime Stoppers announced two billboards seeking information about the fatal accident, along with 20 bus benches in Denver and Aurora.

Today, she walks with a limp, and speaks regularly with a therapist, who comes to her home with a translator. One year later, she still struggles with guilt.

Grim stats unchanged

After the deaths of the Khan brothers and other high-profile hit-and-run cases early last year, city leaders launched the Heads Up campaign in May. The billboards and other promotions were aimed at reminding motorists, pedestrians and cyclists to be aware of each other, but officials can't say how effective that's really been.

Police held community meetings in neighborhoods where collisions have been prevalent to urge residents to be vigilant. Police got a $65,000 federal grant to better train patrol officers on hit-and-run cases.

But the grim statistics haven't changed.

Read more: Denver police frustrated by number of unsolved hit and run accidents - The Denver Post 

Background Photo Credit: Kasia Broussalian © 2015