Over two weeks ago, the NYPD's 90th Precinct tweeted that officers had tracked down the black Chevy Camaro allegedly involved in the hit-and-run crash that killed Queens cyclist Matthew von Ohlen. The news came on June 6th, four days after von Ohlen's death, and the NYPD confirmed that a suspect had been identified based on the vehicle's registration.
Now, after 16 days, advocates and von Ohlen's fellow cyclists wonder why there hasn't been an arrest. Our own requests to the NYPD for updates on the von Ohlen case, as recently as Thursday, have been met with the same response: "Investigation is ongoing."
The car involved in hit-&-run killing of Matthew von Ohlen was found 2 weeks ago. Why is there no news about locating the driver?
— Paul Steely White (@PSteely) July 21, 2016
— Max Crema (@MaxTCrema) July 16, 2016
Investigations into fatal hit-and-run crashes can take weeks and even months for myriad reasons. Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who primarily represents cyclists and pedestrians injured and killed by reckless drivers, said this week that while a significant chunk of evidence (witness accounts, tire skid marks, surveillance footage) is collected in the first 24 hours following a crash, investigations can be drawn out when, say, a suspect flees to another jurisdiction.
There can also be laboratory delays. "I'm sure they are going to insist on getting toxicology results from the body of von Ohlen, even though there's nothing to suggest that even if he was [intoxicated], it was a contributing factor," Vaccaro said. "It's one of those frustrating things, because it's a procedure that takes weeks or months."
In 2011 the Village Voice published an in-depth look at the NYPD's apparent foot dragging after a crash in Greenpoint that nearly killed cyclists James Paz and Michelle Matson. The involved vehicle was found within 24 hours, but no arrests were ever made. The driver testified that he had lost his keys at a nearby bar that night and walked home, and without an eyewitness saying the owner had been behind the wheel, cops said they were at an impasse.
"I'm aware of numerous cases where drivers have floated such a defense," Vaccaro said. "And I think the fact that the police give any credence whatsoever to such claims is part of the problem."
As a general rule of thumb, he added, the NYPD tends to withhold all updates on a fatality case and defer to "investigation ongoing," even if only a shred of evidence is outstanding. "They may have every bit of evidence there is except for one, and they'll even refuse a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] request," he said.
Advocates say silence on the von Ohlen case is not inspiring confidence in the NYPD's willingness and ability to investigate fatal crashes. According to a recent Transportation Alternatives report, fewer than 1% of the drivers involved in roughly 4,000 hit-and-run crashes that resulted in injury or death in 2015 were charged with a crime.
"If you look at the fact that they are going after such a scant number [of hit-and-run cases], what kind of message does that send to New York's reckless drivers?" said Transportation Alternatives Director Paul Steely White on Thursday. "It's like they can get away with anything."
The city has countered that the NYPD focuses its resources on hit-and-runs that result in serious injury or death, of which they say there were 52 last year. In those cases, 30 arrests have been made.
A driver suspected of killing a Queens woman and seriously injuring her 9-year-old daughter in a hit-and-run collision Sunday has been arrested by the NYPD and charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and assault.
Video surveillance recovered from the scene of the crash that killed von Ohlen shows that the 35-year-old was riding in a designated bike lane when he was struck. Law enforcement sources told Pix11 earlier this month that the driver—who was shielded by tinted windows—may have struck von Ohlen intentionally, slowing down and moving into the bike lane to strike the cyclist.
"This case is unique because there were initially reports that the driver intentionally struck and killed Matthew," said Steely White. "That goes beyond the routine recklessness we see."
"It's also been a terrible year," he added. At least 13 cyclist have been killed on NYC streets in 2016, according to the NYPD. By comparison, five cyclists had been killed this time last year—a year-to-year increase of about 140%.
Eric Inkala, von Ohlen's roommate at the time of his death, said on Thursday that while the pace of the investigation is "extremely frustrating," he understands it to be moving along.
"From what I know it is progressing and while everyone is impatient, it's more important that this gets done right than fast," he said.
The longer the NYPD withholds evidence during an investigation, Vaccaro said, the longer a victim's attorney is handicapped by a lack of relevant forensic, surveillance, and witness evidence.
"Evidence of a crime is ephemeral," he explained. "The likelihood of being able to put together a case that will support a successful prosecution... diminishes every day you wait and delay. There's video evidence that gets overwritten in the days or weeks following a crash and there's eyewitnesses whose memories fade or who stop going to the place where they saw the crash and can't be reached."
In the case of 24-year-old Ryo Oyamada, who was struck and killed by a police officer in 2013, the investigation lasted for a year. When evidence was released, "The attorneys found that the police only collected partial video recordings of his death," Vaccaro said. "There was most likely further relevant video tape available... and I think the attorney would have been aware of the need to follow up and do his own evidence collection if the NYPD hadn't sat on the partial information for a year." A judge ultimately declined to take action against the officer who struck Oyamada.
"It is possible that they [the NYPD] have incriminating evidence that they aren't releasing for some reason," said Steely White. "But they were very active on Twitter in the beginning [of the von Ohlen investigation], and then it's complete radio silence for two weeks."
"We want the NYPD to be more vocal on these cases," he added. "Even if they don't have updates."