Family of hit-and-run victim seeks to change ‘oversight’ in law

Police seeking public's help in finding driver in weekend accident

Lawrence hit-and-run accidents

  • A 32-year-old Lawrence woman, who was walking, was seriously injured about 1:15 a.m. Sunday in the 2700 block of Lawrence Avenue. Police are looking for a light-colored, possibly silver, suspect vehicle.
  • Bicyclist Rachel Leek, 20, Lawrence, died from injuries she received about 2:15 a.m. Oct. 16 in the 1000 block of Tennessee Street. Police located Joel Hernandez, the suspect, later that day. He is charged with vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident, failing to report an accident and improper passing.
  • Thomas Crum, 60, was killed about 2 a.m. May 4, 2008, at Sixth Street and Gateway Drive. Jake Deckert, 22, was ordered to spend two weeks in jail, after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, failing to report an accident, driving under the influence of alcohol and violating a stop sign.
  • Joshua Walton was found guilty of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident, for a Sept. 23, 2006, accident that killed Ryan Kanost, 22, as he walked across Kentucky Street at 13th Street. Walton was ordered to serve 90 days in jail.

If you hit someone, run.

That’s exactly what the family of a recent hit-and-run fatality victim says Kansas law is encouraging drunken drivers to do.

“It’s pretty unbelievable,” said Mary Leek-Stolz, who lost her sister, Rachel Leek, in a Lawrence crash last year. “It seems like a pretty big oversight in the law.”

Since 2006, three fatal accidents and one serious-injury accident in Lawrence have been caused by drivers who fled the scene without seeking help for the victim.

A hit-and-run crash early Sunday morning is the latest example. Krystyn Renfro, 32, Lawrence, was critically injured after being hit by a southbound vehicle in the 2700 block of Lawrence Avenue.

On Monday, police said they could not release details about the accident or further information about Renfro’s condition. Police did say they had not found the driver and encouraged anyone with information about a light-colored, possibly silver, vehicle with a hatchback and front-end damage to call police, 832-7501, or Crime Stoppers, 843-TIPS (8477).

In the three fatality accidents, police and prosecutors said the drivers had all been drinking ahead of the crashes. Had the drivers stopped, each could have faced more serious charges. But because prosecutors had no evidence the drivers had been drinking, their sentences have ranged from 14 to 90 days in jail.

Joel Hernandez has yet to find out what, if any, penalty he’ll face for the Oct. 16 hit-and-run accident that killed Leek. The 20-year-old Lawrence woman was riding her bike, just south of 10th and Tennessee streets, when she was hit and left unconscious at the curb.

Hernandez was located later the same day and has been charged with vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor, as well as leaving the scene of an accident, failing to report an accident and improper passing. His attorney said he’s working out a plea deal with prosecutors.

Police said Hernandez was under the influence of alcohol during the accident but, because they had no proof, Douglas County prosecutors said drunken driving-related charges could not be pursued.

Rachel Leek’s family is actively looking to strengthen laws for leaving the scene of an accident, currently a low-level felony that typically results in probation. They say the penalty should be the same as involuntary manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a felony that can carry a prison term of more than three years.

“If they know the penalty for leaving the scene is bad for them, they might actually stay and do some good, instead of leaving someone to die on the side of the road,” said Leek-Stolz.

The Leek family has contacted local lawmakers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to help them gain legislative traction in their quest for changing the law.

“It’s a struggle. I’m not sure what it really takes,” said Jeff Stolz, Rachel Leek’s brother-in-law. “It seems like an obvious oversight to me, but I guess it’s been going on for a number of years, so I don’t know what it’s going to take to change it.”