In the post-midnight darkness, five cops walked side by side down Osborn Avenue hunting for a clue, any clue, that could help them find the driver who had killed a motorcyclist and then fled.
Even in the light of day, such clues don’t come often. Most hit-and-run cases go unsolved.
The five officers are members of New Haven’s Crash Reconstruction Team. They were summoned to Whalley and Osborn after the driver of an SUV was spotted racing from the intersection at 2:08 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8, after striking motorcyclist Garry T. Gulledge, a 31-year-old mechanical engineer as well as a gifted photographer and filmmaker.
Gulledge had been traveling westbound on Whalley on his motorcycle. The driver of the SUV was traveling eastbound. The driver turned left toward Osborn. Gulledge, apparently realizing he couldn’t brake in time to avoid a collision, dropped the bike and was ejected. Too late: The driver hit both the bike and Gulledge. The driver drove off. An ambulance crew arrived and transported Gulledge to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Sgt. Rose Dell, a veteran crash investigator, was home asleep at the time. She got the call to come in.
Another member of the team, Robert DuPont, was just pulling his car into his driveway after a long day. He worked a daytime shift as a motorcycle cop, then an additional shift doing crowd control in the bar district. DuPont had been riding motorcycles for fun for over 20 years, since he was 18, long before he did it for work. Now that he spends 40 hours a week on his department Harley-Davidson, he doesn’t take his personal Yamaha FJR1300 out much anymore. (“It’s all work now.”)
DuPont was hoping to walk his dog Ellie, then catch a few hours sleep before returning to town for an extra-duty assignment at a Yale football game.
“I hate to do this to you,” the crash team’s chief, Lt. Rob Criscuolo, told DuPont on the other end of the phone line. “But we have an accident.”
So DuPont turned around and joined Dell and the other three members of his team at Whalley and Osborn.
At one point Dell called for a “line search” down Osborn with the five officers walking at arm’s length from one another, in case they could spot paint chips or other stray evidence along the fleeing driver’s trail.
Two eyewitnesses had told officers they came outside when they heard the crash and saw a silver-colored SUV leaving the scene. That was a start.
The line search came upon a promising first clue: a black plastic “rocker panel” from a car or bike lay on the ground. It was stamped “Honda.” OK, so if it came from the fleeing vehicle, it meant the officers would be looking for a Honda. But there are a lot of silver Honda SUVs on the road, Dell reasoned.
DuPont managed to stay alert despite working all those hours. Cops get used to multiple or extended shifts, he said.
He was alert enough to notice a styrofoam McDonald’s cup lying on Osborn Avenue, along with a barbecue sauce container, maybe 20 or 30 feet from the Whalley intersection.
Then DuPont noticed the street had recently been paved. He saw no other debris on it.
DuPont bent over to inspect the cup. It had fluid in it; the fluid “looked fresh.” It smelled like sweet tea.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if it came from [the fleeing] vehicle?” DuPont and Dell recalled thinking. And wouldn’t it be nicer if the customer had paid for the beverage with a credit card?
The crew remained on scene until 8 a.m., taking photos, examining skid marks, measuring distances. It was too late for DuPont to catch sleep before his Yale Bowl gig; he had just enough time to grab an omelette at Lena’s Cafe & Confections in Westville Village. He knew the trick for remaining alert through another long shift, he said: “Staying on your feet. If you sit down, you get tired real fast.”
Team members Dell and Paul Finch would also continue working that Saturday. Dell brought the rocker panel to Branford’s Brandfon Honda dealership. She learned the part would have come from an Acura MDX of a model year between 2003 and 2007. She prepared a poster with a photo of a typical model to seek the public’s help.
She still wasn’t optimistic. “When I left the scene I wasn’t very hopeful. We didn’t have very good witnesses. An Acura MDX is a pretty popular vehicle. I was thinking, ‘What’s the probability of this case?’”
Pretty low, she concluded. New Haven’s cops do better than the typical 25 percent clearance rate for hit-and-run investigations, but the majority still go unsolved for lack of evidence, she said. A hit-and run “is a motive-less crime. It’s not like a homicide when people know one another. It’s a random encounter.”
Dell dispatched Finch to the McDonald’s at 1094 Whalley to review video of customer transactions before the crash. Since the Honda had been traveling eastbound, they figured the driver may have been coming from that outlet. It was at least worth a shot.
The manager showed Finch the video. And sure enough, at 2:02 a.m., the video showed a driver in a silver Acura MDX pulling up to the drive-through. It showed the server handing a cup to the driver, who then passed it to a passenger. And ... it showed the driver paying by credit card.
“It was exciting,” Finch recalled. “‘Hey — this cup might have really led us to something!’”
Finch and Dell obtained a search warrant the next day for information about the McDonald’s purchase. They obtained the credit card number used to buy the drink, which was a large sweet tea, along with Chicken McNuggets and barbecue sauce. Dell and Detective Arpad Tolany then obtained a search warrant for the credit card, which was connected to the Connex Credit Union. They learned that the car belonged to a 22-year-old Fair Haven woman, whose home they then visited.
The daughter wasn’t home. Her mother was. The mother promised to bring the daughter to the police department, which she did. The daughter confirmed that she had been a passenger in the car that night. Her boyfriend was driving. They bought the tea and chicken and sauce, then drove back home. She said they “hit a bump in the road” that she claimed caused her cup to fly out an open window.
“They did not stop but continued home and parked the vehicle in the parking area to the rear of the apartment complex,” she told the police according to a subsequent arrest warrant affidavit. The next day she noticed that the passenger side door had been damaged, because the wind whistled through an opening at the top of the door.”
Dell and Tolnay subsequently interviewed the boyfriend, who told a similar story, according to the affidavit: “At a green light, he began to turn left on Osborn Avenue and felt ‘a thump.’ He never saw another vehicle…. The next morning he noticed that the front passenger side door was lifted up.”
Then Dell asked him again about the specifics of the crash, and “he admitted that he knew he was involved in a significant collision and did not stop because he panicked. He knew he hit something. He was not sure what it was, because he did not see a vehicle prior to the collision. However, he knew that it was more than a mere “pothole” or a bump in the road and should have stopped.”
Getting The Warrant
In a fictional TV cop drama, the investigation would pretty much be over. The police would arrest the driver. Case closed.
In real life, Dell and her team had to nail down more facts, rule out other factors, and wait for lab results.
They reviewed video surveillance from the Sing Wah Restaurant a block from the crash scene to see how far Gulledge traveled in how much time before the crash. They determined he was traveling at around 47.24 miles per hour, according to the affidavit.
They had a police mechanic, Timothy Hatch, inspect the Acura and the motorcycle to determine if mechanical problems may have contributed to the crash. He found no evidence of that.
And Dell needed to wait for a toxicology report from the state’s backlogged Chief Medical Examiner’s office to make sure Gulledge hadn’t been intoxicated at the time of the crash, in order to determine if the driver was only partly or fully at fault. She didn’t get those results until January. They showed that Gulledge was not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
So now she had the evidence she needed to apply for an arrest warrant, which in a busy court system takes time to have approved and signed and served. That took another month or so.
The driver was charged with felony evading of responsibility in a case involving death; negligent homicide with a motor vehicle; and making an improper turn. He is free on $75,000 bond, with a court date scheduled for next Friday. He has not yet entered a plea.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• Joseph Aurora
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Pat Bengston & Mike Valente
• Elsa Berrios
• Manmeet Bhagtana (Colon)
• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
• Sheree Biros
• Scott Branfuhr
• Bridget Brosnahan
• Craig Burnett & Orlando Crespo
• Keron Bryce and Steve McMorris
• Keron Bryce and Osvaldo Garcia
• Keron Bryce and Osvaldo Garcia (2)
• Dennis Burgh
• Anthony Campbell
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• Elizabeth Chomka & Becky Fowler
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao
• Carlos Conceicao (2)
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Mike Criscuolo
• Steve Cunningham and Timothy Janus
• Chad Curry
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Milton DeJesus (2)
• Rose Dell
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Eric Eisenhard & Jasmine Sanders
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jeremie Elliott (2)
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Ettienne
• Bertram Ettienne (2)
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• Michael Fumiatti
• Michael Fumiatti (2)
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• Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
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• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
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• Joseph Perrotti
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• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
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* Elisa Tuozzoli
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
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