It was 10:30 on a Friday night, and Frank Piotrowski was set to relax in front of the TV when a sound outside grabbed his attention. “I hear a little screech and then a boom, a really loud noise. I see a white truck going down the street,” he remembers.
Wearing only pajamas, Piotrowski went out to the street and joined a group of his neighbors standing around two cars. One, a blue Hyundai Elantra station wagon, sat at an angle to the sidewalk. The right rear wheel was twisted as if turned to steer the car from the rear. The entire right side was dented. Behind the Hyundai sat a green Jeep, its front right bumper and fender damaged. Piotrowski knew this car well: It belonged to his wife, Laura Gomez.
Rocky Flemming, owner of the Hyundai, was in his house as the crowd gathered outside. “My neighbor come and bang on my door and tell me my car got hit. When I come out, the whole block was out there seeing my car and the damage,” he said.
It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened. A nearby security camera had captured it all. At 10:38 p.m. a white Ford pickup had driven the wrong way down Ege Avenue and plowed into both cars without stopping.
The Hyundai is a total loss according to Flemming. And like many people with older cars, he has only liabilty insurance. “I have to junk it,” he says. Flemming estimates he’d need at least $4,000 to replace the car, which he doesn’t have. He does own an old minivan filled with tools for work, but the Hyundai was the only way to transport his family safely, he said.
An immigrant from Guyana who works in construction, Flemming is married with two children and another on the way. His wife works part time. “They both work constantly, they’re really hard workers,” said Gomez of the couple.
Stoked by moral outrage and a desire to help their neighbors, Piotrowski and Gomez decided to track down the pickup’s driver. It turns out that it was easier said than done.
Since the video of the crash didn’t show the car’s license plate, they needed to look elsewhere. They threw together a flyer and began canvassing the area for other cameras. “We have been walking three to four miles a day, going to every house, whoever has cameras and handing out flyers,” said Gomez. “You can look at my Apple watch,” she offered, fearing that I might not believe her.
Some people the couple approached didn’t want to be bothered, but several homeowners let them look at their camera footage. Within days the good Samaritans had established the driver’s route, starting on JFK Boulevard, down Union Street, on to West Side Avenue and down Ege Avenue (the wrong way) towards Mallory Avenue. Suspiciously, during his trip, the driver turned his headlights off repeatedly.
After looking at six videos, Piotrowski and Gomez were still at a loss. Bad angles and the darkness made it impossible to make out more than three letters of the license plate. They repeatedly asked the police if they could get footage from the closed-circuit TV cameras at the relevant intersections but were told it was impossible. Then Gomez learned from a parking enforcement officer that she could submit and Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the footage.
I ask Flemming if he has the money to replace the Hyundai. “No, no, no” he says, his voice trailing off in resignation.
Piotrowski and Gomez have created a GoFundMe page hoping to raise enough money to replace the blue Hyundai.
Meanwhile, the pickup’s driver and license plate remain a mystery.
Gomez submitted an OPRA request for the CCTV footage. The response came in yesterday. “The City conducted its search and no responsive records were located. This OPRA request is now deemed closed.”
Gomez and Piotrowski don’t buy it and intend to fight on.