A cyclist rode westbound behind the car that had just killed 11-year-old Gabrielle Lee. Four years later, police want help finding that cyclist.
Detectives Friday released a video (above) that shows the cyclist following in the path of the car leaving that tragic scene on the westbound lanes of Whalley Avenue at 9:30 p.m. on June 4, 2008. (The video’s clock was off by an hour.) The hit-and-run death sparked a citywide outpouring of grief—and helped launch a “Complete Streets”/“Street Smarts” movement in town.
The fleeting image of the cyclist is vague, not identifiable. The video is shot not at the crash site itself but farther west on Whalley; the cyclist appears some 15 seconds after the fleeing car.
The release of the video is one of several steps police are taking as part of a revived investigation into Gabrielle Lee’s death.
Police also have mailed flyers (pictured) to 2,200 homes in the area of the hit-and-run collision, Sgt. Tony Reyes, head of the police department’s Major Crimes Unit, said Friday. The flyers offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the hit-and-run driver’s arrest and conviction.
“We’re trying to refresh people’s recollections of the incident” to add to evidence detectives have been pursuing, said Reyes, whose unit recently took command of the investigation.
Gabrielle Lee, a 5th-grader at Elm City College Prep, was crossing Whalley Avenue with her brother Jeffrey Jr. the night she was killed. They were headed to the Top Kat laundromat.
Her brother, who was two years older than Gabrielle, told the Independent he’ll never forget what happened. They were starting to cross the street because they had a green light, he said. A car came zooming down Whalley. Jeffrey jumped back to the curb. Gabrielle kept going and ran for her life.
“Look out Gab!” he yelled.
It was too late; he saw a car hit her than zoom away.
A changing cast of police investigators came to the family’s house periodically for a year or so after the accident. Then they heard nothing for years, until just eight weeks or so ago.
The police thoroughly investigated the case, but a series of internal department transfers did mean that different investigators handled it at different times, according to Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso.
That changed earlier this year. As part of a series of new directives at the police department under new Chief Dean Esserman, a crash team took a new look at all unsolved major traffic accidents. It made an arrest in one of those cases just last month, involving a fatal 2011 hit-and-run on Front Street in Fair Haven. (Read about that here.)
Officer Rose Dell of the crash team handled that investigation. She’s also working the Gabrielle Lee case.
The department also made a recent decision to have the detective division’s Major Crimes Unit oversee investigations involving fatal traffic collisions. So Det. David Zaweski is working alongside Dell under Reyes’ direction on the Gabrielle Lee case.
The renewed investigation has produced leads that police are following, Reyes said. The new flyer and the search for the cyclist are part of that process. Reyes asked that known details of the incident, including a description of the car, not be published in order to avoid tainting stories that witnesses may produce in new interviews. Reyes asked anyone with information about the case to call detectives at 203-946-6304.
Raised In A Separate Case
Before the cops revived the Lee investigation, a police sergeant living near the crash scene was raising questions about it.
His name is David Setzer (pictured). He worked for the Waterbury police department at the time.
Setzer said he had gathered information from informants who felt the New Haven police had been ignoring it in their investigation. He shared that information with the New Haven police (as well as, eventually, with the Independent). It included alleged details of the crash and what he said were problems with the police investigation.
As it happened, Setzer found himself in his own trouble. The police raided his Westville home and arrested him for allegedly possessing and transferring illegal weapons. (Read about that here and here.) Setzer declared his innocence and claimed he was being retaliated against for his bringing forward information in the Gabrielle Lee hit-and-run.
His assistance in the Lee investigation became part of plea bargaining in his own case: He avoided prison time in return for a guilty plea; and he has left the Waterbury force. (Click here to read the Randall Beach’s Register account of his court plea.)
“I produced strong leads for them that had been ignored,” Setzer told the Independent Friday.
Assistant Chief Generoso said Friday that police have looked at all of the evidence Setzer presented. “We’re still running down stuff he told us. So far we have been unable to corroborate any of it. Our investigation at this time has taken us in a different direction.”
The Waiting Game
Meanwhile, the Lee family has been waiting, frustrated at the failure to arrest anyone yet in the hit-and-run, concerned about hearing rumors but not hearing from the cops for several years until the recent revival of the investigation.
During a recent conversation in their living room, family members were somber as they recalled the night of Gabrielle’s death and the lack of resolution. Gabrielle’s framed photo sat nearby as they spoke.
The original detectives on the case seemed very concerned, said Jeffrey Lee Sr. (pictured), Gabrielle’s father. A new set of investigators showed up a year later. “It seemed they were trying to figure out what we knew more than anything,” he said.
But the hardest part was hearing nothing until about eight weeks ago, when the new team of investigators touched base. Now he’s just hoping for closure.
“We knew it wasn’t premeditated. The person didn’t go out to do that that. When he hit her, he didn’t say, ‘I’m going to go out and hit a little girl.’ I have no malice against this person. I don’t want this person to spend his life in jail,” Lee said.
“I do want justice.
“As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we are not involved in the political process. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in justice.”
Pictured: A self-portrait done by Gabrielle Lee before her death. She wrote the following poem, entitled “Where I Am From”:
I am from people riding bikes in the streets
and kid’s yelling in the park
I am from do your homework now…
I am from wash the dishes when you come home
And how was school baby?
I am from my mom’s baked chicken rice and gravy
I am from the Davis Pizza Place down the street
I am from cookout’s at my grandma’s
I am from tack out the trash tonight
I am from smothered park chops in gravy
I am so happy to be who I am.