Cops Pressed Over Seeming Delay in Arrest of Hit-Run Driver Outside School

Left: At a First Precinct Community Council meeting, Charles Komanoff, with Spruce Street parent Ashley Duncan seated next to him, argues that the owner of a car involved in a hit-and-run accident should be immediately brought in for questioning. Right: First Precinct Commanding Officer Capt. Mark Iocco, responded that further investigation is needed and "there’s a lot of pressure on the detective squad." Photos by Amanda Woods/Tribeca Trib

May. 04, 2015

Police detectives have identified the car involved last month in a hit-and-run accident outside the Spruce Street School—and in another accident in Brooklyn less than an hour later—but have yet to question the owner, a New Jersey resident who is considered a suspect, according to the First Precinct's newly appointed commanding officer.

We don’t have a witness that says, I saw her drive that car, Capt. Mark Iocco told Spruce Street parents and others last Thursday at the monthly meeting of the First Precinct Community Council. Any lawyer that represents her is going to get this case dismissed.

But Charles Komanoff, a Duane Street resident and past president of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian rights advocacy group, pressed the captain to explain why the owner has not been called in for questioning, and to determine where she was at the time of the accident.

If she says, well, somebody else had the car, then who was that and how is it that somebody else had the car? And you question them,” Komanoff said. “But if––it’s more likely––she was driving, then she could be charged.

We want to have a solid case when we bring this to the DA, Iocco replied. We can’t bring it to the DA with holes all over it. So you have to give us a little time. Our detectives, they’re doing so much with this. There’s a lot of pressure on the detective squad.”

Iocco said police have spoken to four witnesses, but they could not see through the car's tinted windows well enough to identify her, which is a problem.

“We’re looking to speak with one more witness,” the captain said. “There is a jogger that looks like he got a pretty good look, maybe even through the tint, to identify her. But we haven’t been able to locate that jogger yet.”

The victim, Heather Hensl, 37, a physician assistant who was on her way to New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital, suffered a fractured leg and cut to the head. She was struck April 13 during morning drop-off time at the school, located just west of William Street. Witnesses said the woman at the wheel drove her white sports car onto the sidewalk and stepped on the gas to get ahead of a line of cars stopped on Beekman Street.

Police have offered varying stories in the aftermath of the accident, creating confusion among parents who are eager to see the driver arrested.

At a meeting of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee on April 21, Gene Schatz, a First Precinct community affairs officer, said the owner had been identified and “the detective squad is trying to get that person to come and speak to them but they cannot force that person to do so.”

The accident prompted Spruce Street School Principal Nancy Harris to call a safety meeting for parents on April 29, attended by three First Precinct officers. At that meeting, Jason Poirier of the Highway Safety Division, said detectives “are not 100 percent on [identifying] the car. They’ve narrowed it down and they think they know.”

“If the detective was 100 percent certain that they have the vehicle, then that’s the end of it,” he said. “They can't not bring the driver in.

The captain, however, insists police don’t want to question the suspect until they have a strong case against her.

“I’m telling you, we’ve gotta try and develop more information on her,” Iocco said. “We’ve gotta try and track down the jogger, we’ve gotta look to see if she’s done other things illegal so we have some ammunition on her, so when we bring her in, [we can] put it on the table and see where it goes.”

That “ammunition” could come from the owner’s insurance company, he said. She has filed a claim with the company, and “if she as little as falsified a document,” Iocco said, the detective squad could use that against her.

In the meantime, the accident has led the NYPD to post officers on Beekman, between Broadway and William, for two hours a day, according to Poirier. So far, 70 violations have been issued for failure to yield to pedestrians, use of cellphones while driving, driving without a seatbelt, bicycles on the sidewalk and more, Iocco announced at the Precinct Council meeting.  By the end of the month, a traffic light had been added to the intersection of Beekman and Nassau streets.

But neighbors insist that still more needs to be done to control traffic on the streets surrounding the school, which they say is like the “wild west.”

“If they can’t make the turn, they just jump the curb and make their left-hand turns or right hand turns,” said Spruce Street School parent Ashley Duncan.

Iocco said he sympathized with the parents' concerns.

“Listen, I’m on your side with this one,” he said. “I don’t know why there’s a school there, because it really can’t accommodate––the roads are narrow. Really, the logistics are very poor and dangerous.”

The block of the accident has long been a source of complaints about drivers violating traffic and parking rules, where construction of a 34-story Pace University dormitory is compounding problems by, among other things, narrowing the street to one lane.

“People are really concerned and we want to advocate for a crossing guard,” Harris said.

But low pay and difficult hours means that demands for the guards outstrips supply, Poirier told parents at the Spruce Street School meeting. “We get very limited applicants and there definitely isn’t enough to go around,” he noted. “If we got two school crossing guards tomorrow, there’s already spots for them that aren’t filled.”

An increase next year in the number of children walking to the Spruce Street School unaccompanied by adults—the school will have its first sixth grade students—is adding to parents' worries.

“It’s a real big danger,” Duncan said. “I keep repeating, it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when one of our children is going to be hurt.”