Investigation continues into deadly hit-and-run that killed homeless woman

Berkeley police investigated a deadly hit-and-run collision Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The woman who was killed Monday when a driver fleeing from police ran over her had been lying on the sidewalk for many hours the day before, prompting welfare checks from police and attempts to help her from others in the area, Berkeleyside has learned.

The Alameda County coroner’s office has identified the woman as a 58-year-old transient. The office has the woman’s name but cannot release it yet pending the notification of her relatives.

“We’re still searching for family,” a staff member from the coroner’s office said Thursday. “We haven’t been successful yet.”

According to police, the incident began Monday at about 10:30 a.m. when an officer from the University of California Police Department saw a man in a vehicle violently assaulting a female passenger who was screaming. According to UCPD, the officer “approached to intervene and the vehicle fled the area.” After a short vehicle pursuit, the driver ran over the woman on the sidewalk then sped off onto the freeway. As of Thursday, the driver had not been located.


Authorities have said little about how the pursuit unfolded, but a driver in the immediate area, who spoke to Berkeleyside on condition of anonymity, described what he witnessed. He said he had been waiting to turn left at the northbound traffic light at University Avenue and Sixth Street when he saw a UCPD SUV across the street that was following a dark gray car that took off southbound on Sixth, crossing University as the light turned red.

Authorities erected a black screen around the body of a woman who was killed by a driver fleeing police Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The UCPD officer had his emergency lights on but the driver said he did not hear a siren as the officer chased the gray sedan south on Sixth one block to Addison Street. There, the sedan made a U-turn and UCPD did the same. The two vehicles sped up Sixth, now northbound, going perhaps 40 mph, the driver told Berkeleyside, with UCPD about a quarter-block behind the sedan.

Ahead of him, the driver said he could see another motorist who was eastbound on University — and had the green light — who was about to turn left onto Sixth. He briefly considered whether he should intervene, and pull out in front of the gray sedan to head off a possible collision, but decided to stay put and watch closely.

As the gray sedan entered University against another red light, it had to make a wide left turn around the motorist who was trying to turn left onto Sixth, the driver told Berkeleyside. That’s what caused the sedan to end up on the sidewalk via the curb cut, he said.

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The driver said he did not see the gray sedan hit anyone and only learned about the fatality hours later. He said the sedan came off the sidewalk onto University right before CorePower Yoga, at 811 University, then continued.

Police said the fleeing man got onto the freeway while the UCPD officer returned to 811 University to check on the woman who had been hit.

The man who spoke to Berkeleyside said he’d been concerned when he did not hear a siren either time the chase passed him, particularly as the vehicles were returning northbound toward the busy intersection.

“That would have been an audible cue to a pedestrian or a car to look in that direction,” he said.

Police have not yet responded to Berkeleyside inquiries about whether the officer ever used a siren. UCPD’s vehicle pursuit policy states that these chases “shall be conducted only with red light and siren … for exemption from compliance with the rules of the road.” UCPD only allows vehicle pursuits in a few serious circumstances, which include when a driver “is believed to be a violent felon who poses a significant, ongoing threat to public safety.”

According to the policy, “The seriousness of the offense and the threat posed by the fleeing suspects(s) must justify the vehicle pursuit. When initiating or continuing a vehicle pursuit, officers should continually weigh the seriousness of the offense(s) against the potential dangers to themselves and members of the public.”

The driver who spoke to Berkeleyside said he still has questions about the pursuit.

“I’m just really hoping they were trained for this,” he said, of the UCPD officer. “That chase put a lot of other people in danger and ended up killing somebody. The net effect was that somebody died that shouldn’t have and they [the sedan] got away. I think it’s pretty important to know: Was every step that should have been taken taken?”

The news that a woman had been killed in the crash left him shaken, he said.

“It’s surreal because it really did look like you’re in the middle of a Hollywood chase, cars up on the curb type of thing,” he said. “The worst part of it was, I didn’t know somebody had been killed until later in the day. So of course I thought, if only I’d just moved over a little bit, things could have been different. You second-guess: Did I do the right thing?”

Berkeley police closed off and cleared the area around a fatal hit-and-run crash Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Another reader emailed Berkeleyside to say she and her husband had both separately seen the woman who was killed lying on the sidewalk for hours Sunday, the day before the incident, and had called police to check on her. The reader said her husband saw the woman on the sidewalk near the driveway into CorePower at about 8:45 a.m. She saw the woman at about 4:30 p.m. and later in the evening.

“I saw this figure that was there, a person totally wrapped up so you couldn’t see any part of them, kind of in a fetal position,” she said. The woman’s body looked so small, it was almost hard to tell whether the shape was a person or something else. But the passer-by said the woman would at times writhe around.

“When I saw that, it just seemed really off,” she said. “In the middle of a sidewalk really close to where the driveway is is very exposed.”

She heard that at least one person from the yoga studio went out to check on the woman, too, and offered her both a jacket and oranges, which the woman on the sidewalk reportedly declined. The woman who spoke to Berkeleyside said she called the Berkeley Police Department to alert them to the woman’s condition.

Police told her officers had spoken with the woman on the sidewalk twice but she declined their help and “didn’t meet the criteria to be hospitalized,” which include being a danger to oneself or others. But the Berkeleyside reader said she believes it’s possible the woman on the sidewalk could have been “gravely disabled,” which would have been grounds to get her to a hospital.

Officer Byron White, BPD spokesman, confirmed that BPD responded to Sixth and University on Sunday just after 2:30 p.m. “after receiving a report of a person wrapped in a sleeping bag in the middle of the sidewalk. The officer spoke with the woman and saw that she was okay and did not want or need assistance,” he said in a prepared statement. Police got another call at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, so “officers continued to monitor her throughout the day to see if her condition had changed.”

Berkeley police investigate a fatal hit-and-run crash, Jan. 20, 2020. Photo: Emilie Raguso

White said police do not know for sure about the woman’s position prior to her death, but he said it was possible she was still lying on the sidewalk as she had been the day before.

White said BPD has not determined yet whether Monday’s fatality will be classified as a homicide. But the department’s homicide team is investigating the case. He said BPD has received multiple phone and email tips about the hit-and-run driver, and that detectives are following up on leads.

Some readers have asked whether police were able to use cameras in the area to aid in the investigation. White said the red-light cameras at Sixth and University are no longer operational, and that the Caltrans cameras there are not recording, only monitoring in real-time. White said police were able to track down other surveillance footage in the area, however.

Readers also asked why the woman’s body, which was screened off from public view, remained outside for so long on Monday, for more than six hours. That’s because serious investigations like this take a significant amount of time, White said, from recording and diagramming the scene to other types of investigation and documentation. It’s a priority to be thorough, he said.

“You never really know what one little piece of evidence can point to,” he said. “I understand that people would like the deceased collected as soon as possible but, for the purposes of the investigation, we need to be sure that we’ve collected all the evidence.”

Emilie Raguso is senior reporter at Berkeleyside. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.com. Phone: 510-459-8325.