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Update: Ernesto Vargas out of hospital; Why officers didn’t arrive at his bike crash site quickly; Officials discuss safety upgrades to Long

Vargas, 18, was struck and critically injured on 2/23/24 at Grace/Long, just 1/8 mile north of where a driver killed Josh Anleu, 16, on a bike on 10/24/23 at Waveland/Long.

Vargas walks in the hospital while recovering from his crash. Photo: GoFundMe

By John Greenfield and Kirsten Lambert

Update 3/6/24, 3:30 PM: Great news: Cyclist Ernesto Vargas is now able to walk and is recovering at home, according to the statement on a GoFundMe page his father launched, which an employee of the crowdfunding platform verified to Streetsblog. So far the page has raised over $4,500 out of a $60,000 goal.

In his message on the fundraiser, Vargas' father credited "a good USPS employee," the postal worker quoted below in our writeup, for immediately calling 911 after a Jeep driver struck the bike rider. "The guy who hit my son did come out his vehicle to see what happened but then left," the father writes. "The police never showed up."

Vargas suffered "a brain bleed, bruised neck ligaments, ruptured ear drum, and fractured ear canal," his father wrote. "THANK GOD he’s alive. He was released from the hospital ICU on February 28, 2024. He will need to have physical therapy for I don’t know how long. He can’t work right and not sure when will he get back to work. Our family is grateful for anything donated to him."

It's wonderful that Vargas is on the mend (and I can certainly relate to his situation.) But obviously the reported lack of a rapid, effective response from police, which allowed the driver to leave the scene without so much as a ticket, is troubling. The traffic crash report written by the Chicago Police Department provides an account of why it supposedly took so long for officers to arrive at Grace Street and Long Avenue, where the crash occurred.

"Responding officers responded to 3800 N. Linder Ave. / 5499 W. Grace St. for an auto [crash] (bicycle vs. car)," the crash report's narrative states. That intersection is a block west of Grace/Long, "Upon arrival, the ROs did observe any [crash] or crime scene in the area and were notified by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] that [Vargas] was transported to Lutheran General Hospital by Chicago Fire Department ambulance #47. The ROs then relocated to Lutheran General Hospital where [Vargas] was admitted... The ROs were not able to talk to [Vargas because] he was in and out of consciousness and unable to speak... due to head injuries."

"Per [a statement from the postal worker; the Jeep driver] struck [Vargas] as he was turning to go eastbound on on Grace," the crash report narrative states. "[The Jeep driver] did not stay on the scene of the [crash]. The ROs then relocated to [Grace/Long] intersection for possible crime scene, but with negative results." The narrative adds that a "concerned citizen" told police that she had a video of the crash, and the Major Accidents Investigation Union was notified about the incident around 8 p.m. that evening, about two hours after Vargas was picked up by the EMTs.

According to a Block Club article published Monday by Molly DeVore, last Friday Alderperson Ruth Cruz (30th) met at the crash site with other local politicians, the district's police commander, and Chicago Department of Transportation staff. They discussed using state funding to help improve safety of Long, which is a popular cycling route, but is also used by drivers as a "cut-through" to avoid traffic on nearby main streets. Possibilities include speed humps and sidewalk extensions to calm traffic, and the avenue may eventually be designated as a Neighborhood Greenway side street bike route, including pavement markings.

Read the Block Cub Chicago report here.

– John Greenfield, editor

The February 23 crash site at Grace Street and Long Avenue in the Irving Park neighborhood, looking east. Photo: Kirsten Lambert

What will it take for the Chicago Department of Transportation to implement safety measures on a stretch of Long Avenue (5400 W.) just south of Irving Park Road (4000 N.) in Portage Park? 

Four months ago on October 24, 2023, a driver struck and killed Josh Anleu on a bike at Waveland Avenue (3700 N.) and Long. 

Four months later, last Friday, February 23, a hit-and-run motorist inflicted a severe head injury on bike rider Ernesto Vargas, 18. That collision took place just an eighth of a mile north of Anleu's crash site, at Grace Street (3800 N.) and Long Avenue.

Residents are now wondering why more hasn’t been done to make Long safer for cyclists and pedestrians alike.

According to the Chicago Police Department, the latest traffic violence case took place Friday around 5:51 p.m. Although there was at least one third-party witness, as well as security camera footage, several questions remain about what exactly happened before and after the collision.

Direction of travel in dispute

The CPD-written traffic crash report indicates that Vargas was traveling north on Long Avenue. It says a witness reported that the driver of a Jeep was traveling south when they turned left onto eastbound Grace, striking Vargas. The report says that the motorist "did not stay at the scene of the [crash]."

Image of the Vargas collision from the crash report. The placement of the vehicles in this sketch does not match security video footage, and in reality eastbound Grace jogs south as it crosses Long – see Google Maps image near the end of this post.

A CPD Community Alert flyer states that the vehicle was a two-door black Jeep Wrangler.

Security camera footage a nearby resident provided to the police appears to confirm that vehicle description. But, contrary to the traffic crash report, the video shows that both the Jeep and Vargas were traveling south before the crash. 

And after reviewing the video footage of the incident, local alderperson Ruth Cruz (30th) told told Block Club Chicago a different story than what the crash report states. And the bikeway safety advocacy organization Bike Lane Uprising recently emailed followers and posted on social media that multiple video cameras captured the following sequence of events leading up to the collision:

  1. Vargas and the Jeep driver were both traveling southbound on Long, south of Irving Park. The motorist was behind the cyclist.
  2. As Vargas and the driver approached Grace (a three-way intersection with a stop signs for southbound, northbound, and eastbound traffic), the motorist did not slow down or stop at the stop sign. 
  3. The driver was in the northbound traffic lane, appearing as if they might be attempting to pass Vargas on the left. 
  4. Vargas began to turn left onto Grace, and the Jeep driver hit Vargas. 

The sounds of the driver's brakes caught the attention of a postal worker who was getting mail from the mailbox on the southeast corner of Long and Grace, the worker told Streetsblog. He pointed out a detail that other reports have not: It was snowing. He said visibility was poor. 

After the collision, the Jeep driver and the postal worker moved Vargas out of the street and onto the grass, the worker told Streetsblog. The postal worker called 911. He said Vargas was unconscious at first but then came to while they waited for an ambulance. 

The postal worker also stated that the Jeep driver tried to use Vargas' cell phone to contact a family member, but the motorist was not able to do that because Vargas’s phone was locked. The worker described the driver as a tall, thin, bearded white man in his 30s or 40s.

Jeep inhabitants in question

The postal worker also mentioned a woman in scrubs – possibly a nurse – arriving on the scene. He didn't think she had been traveling with the Jeep driver.

A neighbor who lives near the crash site told Streetsbog that security video at her house shows the woman in scrubs appeared to approach Vargas on foot from the south.

Contrary to what the postal worker said, Bike Lane Uprising wrote in their email to followers that the woman in scrubs was a passenger in the Jeep.

The postal carrier told Streetsblog the Jeep did have at least one passenger: a big brown dog — possibly a Labrador. He added that the Jeep driver told him that he had just come from a dog park. That was likely at Portage Park, located two blocks north of the crash site at Irving Park and Long.

EMTs arrived minutes after the crash and took Vargas to Lutheran General Hospital, police said. The Jeep driver, the woman in scrubs, and the postal worker stayed with Vargas until the the EMTs arrived, according to the worker. He said the Jeep driver and the woman in scrubs left shortly after the ambulance took Vargas to the hospital, around 6:10 p.m.

It’s not clear when police showed up. The postal worker told Streetsblog that by the time he and the other two people left the intersection, about 20 minutes after the crash, no police had arrived on the scene.

The neighbor told Streetblog she noticed members of the police’s Major Accident Investigation Unit “a few hours later” as they examined the intersection with flashlights.

Bike Lane Uprising reported that police began asking neighbors for video footage the next day. 

How many crashes are acceptable?

"Ghost bike" memorial for Josh Anleu as it appeared last night. Photo: Kirsten Lambert

At a memorial for Josh Anleu last November, several local legislators stressed the importance of improving the safety of pedestrians and bike riders in the neighborhood. 

State Sen. Natalie Toro (D-25th), State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-19th) and Ald. Ruth Cruz all said they were committed to keeping cyclists safe. Cruz promised that her office would work with the community to find out what was needed, and consider whether a traffic circle or added signage could improve safety near Long and Waveland. 

The neighbor who lives near Grace/Long who has lived in the area for 40 years says neighbors have been asking for measures such as speed cameras or speed bumps for years. Many drivers use Long as a cut-through instead of Laramie Avenue (5200 W.), the major street to the east, or Central Avenue (5600 W.), the arterial to the west. Both of those streets have stoplights.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), also a firefighter, whose ward included Grace/Long before redistricting last year, had dubiously told residents that the city couldn’t install speed bumps on Long because they would slow down fire trucks. 

A recent visit to the two intersections — Grace/Long, and Waveland/Long — revealed that most drivers were not stopping at the stop signs on Long Avenue at either Grace or Waveland. A few slowed down briefly. Only occasionally did a driver came to a complete stop. Some drove right through the intersection without missing a beat. 

Overhead view of Grace/Long. Eastbound Grace jogs south as it crosses Long. Image: Google Maps

The longtime resident is especially concerned for students who cross Long Avenue every morning and afternoon as they walk to and from William P. Gray Elementary at Laramie and Grace. She also mentions a third crash that she says took place in the last few months, in which yet another a driver reportedly hit a bike rider on Long near Grace. She says that particular incident didn’t garner much news coverage, and she had only heard about it from a neighborhood website. 

The neighbor said, “You would think after the first person died, something would have been done. But you shouldn’t have to wait for somebody to die [to make safety improvements].”

Security video image of the Jeep.

As of this writing, Vargas’s condition is unknown; Streetsblog Chicago was not able to reach his family. However, police continue to look for the Jeep driver who struck Vargas. Anyone who has information about the crash should contact detective Michael Scanlon of the Major Accident Investigation Unit at (312) 745-4521. 

– Kirsten Lambert

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