Family and friends of Elyse Stern sat in a Minneapolis courtroom Monday, telling a judge how the March night when she was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle darkened their days forever. Shortly after the driver was sentenced in that case, another man accused of fatally striking a bicyclist in the city last week was turning himself in to police.
Tips from the community produced the break investigators needed to identify the 24-year-old man who police say is expected to be charged with criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Jessica Hanson.
Police said a hit-and-run driver struck Hanson about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday after going through a stop sign at W. 28th Street and Pleasant Avenue S., above the speed limit with the car lights turned off.
Hanson, 24, a server at an Uptown bar called Republic, died two days later.
Chad Kummrow, Hanson's cousin, said she donated vital organs that will save five lives, including a man who has waited for a pancreas for a year. Others will receive her lungs, liver, kidneys and heart, "the only great thing to come out of this," he said.
"It's a good thing the suspect turned himself in, because you start to wonder if the police will ever find him," Kummrow said. "Now we don't have to waste time on these thoughts."
'Safety in numbers'
Bicycle crashes declined by 4.5 percent statewide last year, although the number of fatalities rose, from five to seven.
In Minneapolis, the city's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator said Monday that even with more bicyclists on the road, this year's crash rate compares to previous years.
"There is a safety in numbers," said coordinator Shaun Murphy. "The more bikers, the more drivers pay attention."
The city launched a bicycle safety campaign pushing simple messages such as "look for bikes" and "ride predictably."
Kummrow, Hanson's cousin, was among a group of police officials, friends and relatives who held a news conference Monday afternoon at a growing memorial near the crash site.
Candles, flowers, an Atmosphere CD and pictures surrounded a white, painted bike.
Deputy Chief Kris Arneson called Hanson's death horrible and senseless. She thanked the suspect's family and acquaintances for pressing him to go to police and the department's apprehension unit for working around the clock this weekend.
"He knew we were after him," Arneson said.
He was alone when he turned himself in, police said.
Homicide Lt. Richard Zimmerman said police weren't searching for more suspects.
When asked whether the driver who struck Hanson knew he had hit someone, Zimmerman said, "There was no way he couldn't tell he hit somebody."
Zimmerman said he didn't know if alcohol was a factor.
Justin Berkman, Hanson's boyfriend, said she was riding to his house Wednesday to have pizza and watch a movie. The area where she was hit was well lit and didn't allow vehicles to park in the bike lane, he said.
"If he isn't speeding without his lights on, this never happens," he said, tears streaming down his face.
The suspect, who lives a couple of miles from the accident site, has had several scrapes with the law in the Twin Cities, including carrying a firearm in public without a permit and driving without proof of insurance. His license is currently canceled.
Sentencing in March case
Earlier Monday in Hennepin County District Court, Stern's relatives gave poignant victim-impact statements at the sentencing of Juan Ricardo Hernandez-Campoceco, who pleaded guilty in May to felony hit-and-run and fourth-degree driving while impaired.
His vehicle struck Stern, 28, at E. Lake Street and Cedar Avenue S. about 2 a.m. on March 30.
At the time Hernandez-Campoceco was charged, Deputy Hennepin County Attorney David Brown said authorities couldn't charge him with criminal vehicular homicide because they couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his driving caused the death.
Witnesses reported that Stern turned in front of Hernandez-Campoceco's car, Brown said at the time.
Before District Judge Gina Brandt handed down the sentence, she heard the impact statements and thanked Stern's family for offering a picture of the victim.
"It really brings it to reality for me," the judge said.
Brandt praised the impact statements for focusing on the victim and not training only anger toward the defendant.
Robin Stern, Elyse Stern's mother, said that her daughter rode her bike everywhere and that they constantly worried about her safety. Their pain and anger that Hernandez-Campoceco didn't stop are indescribable, she said.
"Elyse's younger sister has dropped out of college since the accident," Robin Stern said. "Her brother has turned inward."
Sue Kerr spoke on behalf of Elyse Stern's longtime partner. Stern lived in a way that didn't harm others, she said. A musician, welder and gardener, Stern was a perpetual learner.
"She was wise beyond her years," said Kerr.
Hernandez-Campoceco expressed his sorrow through an interpreter, then broke down sobbing. His lawyer, David Reyes, said he is consumed with regret and has no way to repair the damage.
Hernandez-Campoceco received a three-month jail sentence for the drunken driving charge, which was already satisfied because he served 101 days in jail.
Immigration authorities also have him on a hold and he will be deported to Guatemala. If he returns to the United States and violates his probation, he could receive a year in jail for his felony hit-and-run charge.
"We accept the punishment," said Robin Stern.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.