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On the Anniversary of Hector Avalos’ Death, His Family Is Hoping for Justice

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Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the Avalos family.

Last Friday, exactly one year after Hector Avalos was struck and killed by an allegedly drunk driver, his family and friends gathered to remember him at the “ghost bike” erected in his honor. The white-painted bicycle, installed at the crash site on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park, is part of a worldwide movement to memorialize fallen cyclists. Avalos’ memorial serves as a somber reminder of a valuable life lost.

Avalos, 28, was a former marine and aspiring chef who often commuted by bike. On the night of December 6, 2013, he was biking back to the South Side from his job as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North. He was several blocks west of his home on the 1800 block of West Cermak when his path intersected with that of motorist Robert Vais.

Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, had reportedly spent the evening at a staff Christmas party at Francesca’s on Taylor, a restaurant in Little Italy. At 11:50 p.m., he was driving home to southwest suburban Riverside in his Ford Windstar minivan when he struck Avalos from behind. After emergency personnel arrived, Avalos was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:38 a.m.

According to a police report, Vais walked up to an officer on the scene and said, “I was the driver of that van over there. I hit him. Is he OK?” The officer testified that Vais smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes, which spurred his decision to arrest Vais and take him to the hospital for a blood draw. The test showed he had a blood alcohol content of 0.118, well above the legal limit of 0.08.

A small crowd of Avalos’ loved ones gathered on Friday to tell stories and share memories. Wrapped in scarves and blankets, they solemnly poured beer at the base of the light pole that supports the ghost bike, forming foamy puddles. Someone wiped clean the framed photograph of Avalos in his Marine dress uniform, a souvenir from his two tours of duty. Flickering veladoras — religious votive candles — were lit, creating a small circle of light and warmth in the dark, cold night.

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Judge Blocks Motion to Quash Arrest in Case Against Robert Vais

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Robert Vais.

At a hearing last Wednesday, Judge Nicholas Ford denied a Motion to Quash Arrest filed by lawyers for Robert Vais, the driver accused of fatally striking cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk.

Avalos, a 28-year-old former Marine and aspiring chef, was biking on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park on the night of December 6, 2013. Vais, a 54-year-old administrator at Stroger Hospital, allegedly struck him from behind. Tests found Vais had a blood alcohol content of .118, well above the legal limit of .08. He is charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the defense argued that the police officers who responded to the crash did not have probable cause to arrest Vais, according to Active Transportation staffer Jason Jenkins, who has been attending the hearings. If Ford had granted the motion, the case against Vais would have been thrown out.

At the hearing, a police officer gave testimony on why he decided to arrest Vais. When the officer arrived at the crash site, Vais stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said he was the driver, the officer testified. He stated that Vais smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes.

According to the officer, Vais also kept repeating himself, asking several times about Avalos’ condition, and claiming that he didn’t see the cyclist, who appeared out of nowhere. The officer said he suspected alcohol was a factor in the crash, so he arrested Vais and took him to a hospital for a blood draw.

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Senior Killed by Drunk Driver at North Avenue and the Kennedy


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The crash site from Guerrero-Lopez’s perspective.

An SUV driver has been charged with a DUI after he fatally struck an elderly pedestrian at North Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway. This was second time in six weeks that a person on foot was killed at this location.

On April 21, Kim Kyeyul, 72, rear-ended a semi truck with his car on North just east of the Kennedy. After he exited his car to talk to the other driver, he was fatally struck by a second trucker.

On Sunday around 6:30 a.m., construction worker Manuel Guerrero-Lopez, 26, was driving west in his 2004 Volkswagen Tourareg, police said. Guerrero-Lopez, of the 8100 block of South Kostner, ran a red light on the west side of the Kennedy viaduct and struck a southbound Toyota Camry exiting the expressway, according to the police report.

The SUV flipped on the passenger side and slid into the eastbound lanes of North, striking Charles Jones, 73, of the 500 block of Monroe Street in Valparaiso, Indiana, according to authorities. Police said Jones was standing in the middle of the street panhandling. However, Jones’ wife Barbara said that she had never known him to panhandle, and that he said he was going to Chicago to look at a new car, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Charles Jones was pronounced dead at the crash scene at 6:48 a.m., according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. Guerrero-Lopez, who was unable to take a field sobriety test, was transported to Illinois Masonic Hopital. there his blood-alcohol level was found to be .161 percent, more than twice the legal limit, prosecutors said.

Guerrero-Lopez has been charged with aggravated DUI resulting in a death, as well as misdemeanor counts of disobeying a red light, DUI, and failure to exercise due care to avoid a pedestrian in the road, police said. At a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Laura Sullivan ordered him held on $250,000 bond, according to the State’s Attorney’s office. The next hearing is scheduled for June 23.

Barbara Jones described her husband, who was the stepfather of her five children, as a hardworking man who kept a positive attitude, despite losing a leg to complications from diabetes eight years ago, the Tribune reported. “He was an optimist,” she said. “Every morning he’d put that leg on and do something – odd jobs, something.”

Fatality Tracker: 2014 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths

Pedestrian: 15 (6 were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 1 (1 was a hit-and-run crash)

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Defense in Avalos Case Will Try to Invalidate Blood Alcohol Test

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Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the family

Last week, the attorney for Robert Vais, the driver accused of fatally striking cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk, indicated that the defense will file a motion to invalidate Vais’ blood alcohol content test, according to Avalos family lawyer Michael Keating.

Avalos, a 28-year-old former marine and aspiring chef, was biking on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park on December 6, when Vais, 54, fatally struck him from behind. Vais is charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges.

The defense revealed its strategy at a status hearing last Tuesday, attended by many of Avalos’ friends and family members, according to Keating, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor. Also in attendance were a coworker of Bobby Cann, who was also killed on his bike by an allegedly drunk driver last year, as well as victim advocates from the police department, the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, and the Active Transportation Alliance.

The defense will argue that blood alcohol testing is unreliable, so the fact that Vais was found to have a BAC of .118, well above the legal limit of .08, on the night of the crash, should not be held as evidence, Keating said. He added that this is a common tactic in DUI cases. Last month the attorney for Ryne San Hamel, the defendant in the Cann case, filed a similar motion.

In response, the State’s Attorney’s office will use an expert toxicologist to verify that BAC tests are generally accurate, Keating said. The expert will likely testify at the next hearing, scheduled for June 30 at 9:30 a.m. at the Cook County Courthouse, 26th and California, room 702.

Meanwhile, the Avalos family’s civil suit against Vais, as well as Francesca’s on Taylor, the restaurant where the driver reportedly drank prior to the crash, is moving forward. The parties are currently engaging in written discovery, the exchange of evidence between the parties, according to Keating. The deposition of the responding police officer is expected to take place next month, Keating said.

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Cop Who Injured Cyclist in Hit-and-Run Gets Slap on the Wrist


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The crash site from the cyclists’ perspective.

Last month an off-duty Chicago cop who apparently struck a female cyclist with his truck while drunk, fled, and then lied about the incident on a police report, was acquitted of both felony charges he faced: leaving the scene of an accident and filing a false police report. However, Cook County Judge James Linn did find Officer Michael Bergeson, 34, guilty of misdemeanor failing to provide aid and information at an accident involving injury.

At Wednesday’s sentencing, Linn, who acknowledged Bergeson was in the “wrong,” could have given him up to one year in prison. That would have been an appropriate penalty for a man sworn to serve and protect the public, who instead drunkenly injured a young woman, left her lying in the street, and then blamed her for the crash on the report.

However, citing the cop’s “outstanding” record as an officer, the judge gave him a very lenient sentence: a year of court supervision and 30 days of community service at a rehabilitation clinic. Bergeson was also ordered to pay victim Nina Pilacoutas, 27, $2,250 in restitution. Court record indicate Pilacoutas also sued Bergeson, with a settlement reached early last month, although her lawyer Paul McClennon declined to comment on the case.

The crash took place on August 3, 2012, at around 3:25 a.m. Pilacoutas, an artist and bartender, was cycling west home from work with her boyfriend Clayton Meyer when they came to California and Wabansia, a skewed intersection with four-way stop signs. Bergeson was allegedly driving his Ford F150 pickup northbound on California when he blew a stop sign. Pilacoutas went over the hood of the truck and landed face-first on the pavement, suffering a concussion, facial injuries, broken bones in her feet, and bruises on her body. Meyer said the cop got out of his truck and acted confused.

According to Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Freeman, the driver drunkenly called 911 three times after the crash but did not admit fault, or provide his name or location. He repeatedly hung up on the dispatcher. Bergeson allegedly drove away before the ambulance arrived. Fortunately, he left his license plate at the scene, but when police later traced the number to his residence he didn’t answer the door and his truck was nowhere in sight. Two days later he made a police report claiming that it was Pilacoutas who ran a stop sign and hit his truck.

“He is a coward and does not deserve to wield a badge,” Pilacoutas told Linn on Wednesday. She asked him “not to protect a cowardly man who happens to be a police officer and who never once apologized for nearly killing me.” Bergeson responded, “I apologize from the bottom of my heart… I am sorry for everything,” essentially acknowledging his guilt.

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Video Shows Bobby Cann Crash Happened at the Intersection


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The crash site from the driver’s perspective.

Security camera footage recently obtained by the State’s Attorney’s Office shows that motorist Ryne San Hamel fatally struck cyclist Robert “Bobby” Cann at the intersection of Clybourn and Larrabee, according to victim advocate Sharon Johnson. Previously the authorities did not know if the crash happened at the intersection or if San Hamel, who police say was intoxicated and speeding at the time, struck Cann from behind.

The crash happened on the evening of May 29. Cann, 26, was riding from work at the nearby Groupon offices when San Hamel, 28, struck him. San Hamel was charged with reckless homicide, aggravated DUI, misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving, and failure to stay in the lane.

Johnson, from the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, said the video likely came from a camera installed outside New Zaika restaurant, 1316 North Clybourn. She said she has not seen the footage, and Cann’s family likely won’t see it unless the case goes to trial. The video provides evidence that San Hamel, who was traveling southeast on Clybourn, was driving under the influence, although there does not seem to be evidence he ran a red light, she said.

Cann had been traveling north on Larrabee prior to the crash. Johnson was uncertain if the video shows him turning northwest at the intersection, continuing north, or turning southeast. The first two directions would have taken him towards his Lakeview home, while a right turn would have taken him to a bike shop just around the corner.

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