Drunk Driver Who Killed Hector Avalos Sentenced to Only 100 Days in Prison

cmnXY4qtSG2ME469BkjJZQ
Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the family

At a hearing today, Judge Nicholas Ford gave Robert Vais, the driver who struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk, a relatively light sentence of 100 days in a state prison plus two years probation. Vais must also perform manual labor as part of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program once a month for two years, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.

On December 6, 2013, Avalos, 28, a former Marine, was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, now 56, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.

Blood drawn from Vais soon after the crash showed his blood alcohol level was 0.152 percent, nearly twice the legal level of 0.08. He was charged with felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. On September 16 of this year, Vais pleaded guilty.

30 to 40 supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the local bike community, attended today’s sentencing hearing, according to Active Transportation Alliance staff member Jason Jenkins, who has attended most of the hearings for the case. A comparable number of people were there in support of Vais.

At the hearing, Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio, stepfather Jorge Cossio, and younger stepsiblings Brandon and Brandi read victim impact statements. Vais’ sister, a childhood friend, and a coworker read mitigating statements. Vais was given an opportunity to make a statement and expressed strong regret and remorse, and apologized profusely to Avalos’ relatives while tears came to his eyes, Jenkins said.

According to Illinois law, aggravated DUI carries a jail sentence of three-to-fourteen years, at least 85 percent of which must be served in prison, plus fines of up to $25,000. Probation is generally not an option, except in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that Judge Ford gave Vais a sentence of only 100 days, plus two years probation, with no fine. The jail term will begin on November 30, which gives Vais time to put his affairs in order before he serves time.

hectoravalos2
Ghost bike memorial at the crash site. Photo: Lorena Cupcake

Ford spoke at length about the thought process behind his decision to grant a lenient sentence, according to Jenkins. He noted that Vais had no criminal record and a clean driving record and credited the defendant for staying on the scene, cooperating with police, and pleading guilty to the charges. In addition, 150 people wrote letters vouching for his character as a family man who contributed to his community by volunteering as a coach. “I can only imagine that all of those factors added up in the judge’s mind as being ‘exceptional circumstances,'” Jenkins said.

Ford noted that it was likely that neither Avalos nor Vais supporters – who likely hoped for a sentence of probation with no jail time – would be happy with the verdict. “We weren’t hoping for an outcome of another person’s life being destroyed,” said Jenkins. “The fact that there is jail time is somewhat reassuring.” According to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, there is no possibility that the jail sentence will be shortened.

Jenkins added that it was somewhat troubling that Ford referred to the fact that Avalos was wearing dark clothing at the time of the crash as a mitigating factor. Also problematic was the repeated use of the term “accident” to describe the fatal crash, even though Vais made a decision to get behind the wheel while heavily intoxicated, Jenkins said.

Avalos family lawyer Michael Keating (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) declined to comment on the sentence. However, he said that the family intends to proceed with its wrongful death lawsuit against Vais as well as Stroger Hospital, which hosted the work party where Vais drank before the crash. “We have every intention of pursuing the lawsuit to the full extent of the law,” Keating said. Last July, the Avalos family reached a cash settlement with Francesca’s on Taylor, the restaurant where the party was held.

Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio told me she felt numb in the wake of the judge’s decision, and is unsure whether it was a fair sentence or not. “I do feel a sense of closure, because every time I went to the courtroom, it was like I saw a video of my son being killed over and over.”

“[Vais] has to face the fact that what he did was wrong,” Cossio said. “He gets a new beginning, a new life, and a new chance to be with his family, so I hope he takes advantage of that opportunity. I don’t get that with my son.”

  • ohsweetnothing

    Wow. That was a rough read.

  • tooter turtle

    Reading her statement, I have to admire Hector’s mother very much.

  • tbatts666

    I wonder why no consideration into taking away his driving privileges. He killed somebody.

  • Bruce

    “In only three states is it a felony offense to maim or fatally injure a
    biker or pedestrian if you are behind the wheel of a car.” https://nextcity.org/features/view/how-much-is-a-cyclists-life-worth-anyway

  • rohmen

    At one point, I believe the State’s Attorney was pushing for revocation through the Secretary of State. Not sure how that turned out, but it might not be part of the sentence because it has already been revoked for a lengthy time. Alternatively, it could be part of the probation sentence and just not have been picked up in the reporting on this.

  • BlueFairlane

    Here’s a hard thing to say.

    A lot of people on this site rail against any admonition to wear a helmet or bright-colored clothing or a light. Any maybe they’re justified and maybe they’re not. That’s irrelevant, because it’s a sure thing that the judges who preside over trials don’t read Streetsblog. If the worst happens to you, the judge will consider what you were wearing when they sentence whoever hit you, regardless of the circumstances.

  • R.A. Stewart

    This is true. And I “know” you well enough through your comments here to know you are not blaming the victim or trying to justify Vais’s actions.

  • rohmen

    Good points. And I’ll try to tread lightly here as well, but I read back through the reports on this here, and I couldn’t find any mention of whether Hector was using lights.

    I don’t say that to take the blame off the driver (the I didn’t see him defense goes as much as to his level of intoxication as it does to any lack of visibility by the cyclist). That said, increasingly (for better or worse), “urban” cycling clothing is made in gray, black or “dark” colors by many companies. I think the assumption is people will use lights to get themselves noticed, so you don’t need a high vis-color jacket.

    If Hector was using lights, and Judge Ford still found the fact that he was dressed in dark clothes constituted a mitigating factor, that’s something cyclists as a community seriously need to start considering.

  • SEB8591

    It’s really easy to get angry…from a comfortable spot…and demand retribution. Here’s what I hope for: Avalos’ family would remain surrounded by community that acknowledges and ministers to thier grief…for as long as it takes to get them whole again. Demanding vengeance seems like a shortcut, but really isnt.; Hanging Vais out to dry still leaves Avalos’ family in mourning.

  • According to Active Trans’ Jason Jenkins, during the hearings there was a discussion of the fact that Avalos’ bike had “the standard reflectors.” It’s not clear whether he had a front light, which is required by law in Chicago, although only a rear reflector is required. It’s possible his front light could have broken off in the crash. Either way, it’s hard to say whether a front light would have had been much help for preventing a rear-end crash by a drunk driver.

    The fact that the color of the victim’s clothes factored into the judge’s decision seems like an argument for wearing bright, reflective clothes and a helmet, and having lots of lights on your bike. Even if it’s the case that these things don’t do much to prevent or mitigate the effects of a crash, it’s clear that they can influence the decisions of police, judges, and jury members.

  • High_n_Dry

    From *our* anecdotal experience, vehicular manslaughter – drunk or sober – of a pedestrian or cyclist results in a light sentence, cause they always “came out of nowhere” but…

    There must be data to compare sentences for motorists that killed a cyclist with no helmet/ light, cyclist with a helmet/ light, a pedestrian in a crosswalk, a pedestrian outside of a crosswalk and other motorists. (I’m not a researcher or grad student with the available time.)

    Maybe it is an additional argument to wear a helmet or maybe motorists are always treated with special considerations.

  • Bryce Sabin

    Why not 100 days in Cook County!?

  • Because jails are for holding prisoners BEFORE their trials, and prisons are for holding them AFTER.

  • Bryce Sabin

    I thought that if the term was less than a year it was done at a county jail. Like weekends and such.

  • Cook County Jail doesn’t have room for that kind of nonsense. It doesn’t even have room for all the folks awaiting trial; every room is overstuffed and it’s a massive human rights violation.

  • tbatts666

    Thanks buddy,

  • Kelly Pierce

    Let’s be clear, this light sentence is the result of a
    gold-plated defense by Tom Breen, one of the best defense attorneys in the
    Chicago area. Hector had his skull fractured, along with two ribs and his leg
    broken. He was a Marine veteran who had his life in front of him. Judge Nick
    Ford was a former State’s Attorney who prosecuted major felony cases and passionately
    put bad people away for many years. He obviously is comfortable with meaningful
    sentences. As was mentioned, this sentence is not unusual on the national
    level.

  • Just a question, what is the maximum sentence for littering compared to this? I mean he left a body on the side of the road, not trash, shouldn’t they have dinged him big time for that?

    Not trying to be facetious, just looking at this from a different perspective. If we can’t get a stiff sentence for killing, go for the max for leaving the body.

  • neroden

    Horribly, this is a lot more appopriate than the usual result in New York City, which is “Killed someone? We won’t even give you a ticket.”