By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
On October 23, James Paz remembers something inhuman slamming into his bike, the terrifying sensation of his body hurtling through the air, and the instinct of trying to land with-out smashing his face on the Brooklyn asphalt. He remembers struggling to his feet and looking back for his girlfriend, Michelle Matson, who'd been pedaling behind him down Franklin Avenue on her beat-up cruiser. And he remembers that she wasn't there.
Michelle! He kept screaming her name. Michelle!
When he finally spotted his 29-year-old companion, she'd been thrown startlingly far ahead—her body was immobile and unconscious in the Greenpoint street. Her black bicycle, the vintage women's clunker that seemed so indestructible, was terribly mangled. Even though the hour was after midnight, concerned strangers emerged from who knows where, rushing to help. Someone called an ambulance. Several people phoned 911. James began to shake Michelle. He didn't know if she was dead or alive.
Stephen Conte, a twentysomething Greenpoint resident who'd just come from a Calyer Street loft party, saw the four-door sedan that hit them. "I've seen cars speeding in Greenpoint—it's not a new thing," he says. The eyewitness lives by McGuinness Boulevard, a Frogger-like Long Island City connector that New York news aggregator Gothamist has likened to Queens' infamous Boulevard of Death. "I don't look at every car that comes past me, but this time, I was like, 'Holy shit, this guy is going fast, and he's not really in control,' " he recalls close to 10 months later. "But this one screeched and swerved. Four or five seconds later, I just heard the crash and glass breaking."
Conte saw James crying at Michelle's legs. "She was motionless, she couldn't move at all. Her breathing—" To this day, his voice falters when he describes her condition. "It sounded as if she could stop breathing at any moment. It was very shallow and painful. She was barely there."
A squad car arrived and two officers surveyed the scene. An old green Saab parked on the western side of Franklin Avenue was newly missing its driver's side rearview mirror. Glass, apparently vestiges of a broken headlight, was all over the road. Michelle was a bloody heap, her blond hair caked brown and matted to her head, her right hand missing streaks of skin. "You could see she had a broken leg—it was bent," James recalls. He began to shake Michelle, and after what seemed like forever, she came to. At some point, she instinctively tried to get up, not realizing that her feet couldn't function; two girls immediately ran over, cautioning her not to move.
Conte hovered over them until the ambulance arrived, dictating the scene to a 911 attendant. "I asked James if he needed anything, he was so—his world was completely ripped from him. He wasn't very responsive."
In the confusion, James decided he should salvage Michelle's bike wreck for evidence. But when he tried to carry the destroyed relic, his back hurt too badly and he dropped the metal hunk—it was never seen again. By then, the paramedics were hoisting her onto a stretcher and snapping on a neck brace; soon after EMTs ushered him in there, too. Conte had been on his way somewhere that night, but canceled his plans. "I was very shook up."
After being treated for five broken ribs and a broken nose at Bellevue Hospital, James slept by Michelle's side, upright in a chair, for three days. Her skull was fractured. Her C-spine, the neck's cervical vertebrae, was broken. Her lower left leg was shattered; the break was so severe that doctors couldn't set the bones for a week. When the hospital relocated Michelle to a women's floor and James had to leave, the Viacom employee returned to their Bushwick apartment and found a business card left by a 94th Precinct detective. He called the station immediately. The officer on the other end delivered miraculous news: The hit-and-run weapon had been found. "We were like, 'Great, that's amazing! This guy's caught.' "
Not exactly. What James didn't realize is that even though the ditched car was found within 24 hours, a 1990 Nissan Maxima abandoned two blocks southeast of the accident scene, the police would never make any arrests. And that the detective assigned to the case would tell James, as the victim has consistently recalled for months, that the vehicle owner claimed he'd lost his keys at a local bar that same night and walked home—and that without an eyewitness putting him in the driver's seat, there was nothing that could be done. When James or Michelle asked what drinking establishment the auto owner had patronized and whether the police had questioned anybody there or if there were any clues in the car, the officer would become dismissive. They eventually stopped calling. According to the official police complaint, the unidentified hit-and-run driver's highest offense would be categorized a misdemeanor, which seemed preposterous, all things considered.
James and Michelle had been pedaling to Monster Island. It was the penultimate night of the five-day CMJ music festival, a period when an evening itinerary of disparately located live shows demands zigzagging all over town. The couple started off at Coco 66, a Greenpoint Avenue venue that had recently been under scrutiny by local cops, and after midnight on October 23, 2010, the NYPD raided the place and shut down the show. (The NYC Department of Buildings complaint—since resolved; the establishment's also been shuttered—cites the reason for the closure as overcrowding, specifically stuffing 350 people into a sprinkler-less room with one egress only equipped for 74.) Michelle hadn't even seen the band she really wanted to, Brooklyn's Light Asylum, and the bar was so prohibitively crowded they couldn't even order a drink, so they stayed out.