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

4:21 PM CST on December 8, 2014

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.

Photo: Lorena Cupcake

Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio painted a vivid picture of her life with the son she lost. There was more laughter than tears as people remembered how his smile lit up a room. He loved the outdoors ever since a childhood stint in the Boy Scouts. He enjoyed gardening, camping, and fishing, and was always happy to demonstrate the proper way to chop wood. His friends said he was a hardworking cook who prepared delicious food, including “the best ribs in the world.”

Avalos was more than a crash statistic. He was a beloved young man who served his country and had a positive impact on everyone he came in contact with, his family and friends said. The richness of his life makes his senseless death all the more tragic.

In the year that has passed since Avalos’ death, his relatives have not yet seen justice served for the crash that took a family member away from them. Vais was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. The Avalos family has also filed a civil suit against Vais, as well as Francesca’s on Taylor, where he reportedly drank before the crash, and Cook County, which owns Stroger Hospital.

The class implications of a legal battle between a blue-collar South Side family and an affluent suburbanite were not lost on the mourners gathered Friday night. According to a Cook County database, at the time of the crash, Vais was listed as Director of Financial Control IV for the county’s Bureau of Health with an annual salary of $138,300.

Vais continues to fight his charges. Most recently his defense argued that there was no probable cause for his arrest, in spite of the responding officer’s report that Vais had bloodshot eyes and smelled of alcohol at the scene.

At a hearing in September, the officer testified that 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 judge denied the defense’s motion to quash arrest.

Hopefully, legal justice will eventually bring closure to Avalos’ family and friends. However, healing from this kind of loss is a long process that takes place outside of the courtroom. Cossio plans to continue the tradition of standing vigil by the ghost bike every year, and then attending mass the next day with everyone who remembers and misses her son. His senseless death was a tragedy, but his meaningful life will not be forgotten.

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