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.
Together, James and Michelle see a lot of bands, predominantly of the DIY strain, and James, lean and tall, looks the part. A recognizable Northern Brooklyn fixture, he's the kind of guy who cuts a memorable silhouette along Bedford Avenue, standing with an intimidating posture, lips that look permanently puckered, and chestnut hair that's marvelously teased into a rock-star bramble. Michelle is diminutive and blond with fair skin, a huge and toothy smile, and cornsilk-blue eyes. The 2005 School of Visual Arts grad is also a talented artist with a finely honed sense of gallows humor, and she's been known to exhibit a trio of severed-head paper sculptures. As her boss, the painter Marilyn Minter, puts it, "She looks like Alice in Wonderland, but she's a very dark little girl."
That night in October 2010, the Bushwick couple decided to meet a friend at the Williamsburg DIY venue where trash-punk art-stomp fivesome Golden Triangle were still scheduled to play one of the space's many performance compartments, a gallery area called Live With Animals. Michelle remembers tossing her purse in her bike's basket. Hopping on their bicycles, the New Jersey native remembers shouting with James to determine what route they would take. She picked Kent Avenue because she trusted the road's wide bike lane. Then, BOOM, she's in an ambulance and everything's out-of-focus.
"All the sudden, there was this horrible pain—I didn't even know what was going on—this horrible pain, happening all over. I was screaming over and over, like, 'Call my mom!' I was reciting my parents' phone number—it was one of the only phone numbers I had memorized in my head. So I was just screaming that number over and over again. One of the ambulance guys was like, 'I think something might be wrong with her.' " Her outfit, a new dress she'd only worn twice, would be cut off and later handed to her mother in a bag. The package smelled bad.
In retrospect, she knows they did MRIs and CAT scans and made her drink some weird dye to make sure her internal organs were functioning. (They were.) But after a morphine-hazy week, things at the beginning are blurry. After her leg operation, she underwent therapy to learn how to get off the toilet and to bathe. For two and a half weeks, nurses came and wiped her off. She wouldn't learn to walk again until March.
Hospital snapshots provide a grim time capsule of the aftermath. In one image, James holds up his shirt to reveal a cloud-shaped bruise spread across his torso's left side that's a deeper purple than McDonaldland's Grimace. A profile shot of James's facial cuts and scrapes—marks that seem applied with watercolors—illustrates his stitched jawline, a gash as unruly as Frankenstein's forehead wound.
Michelle, meanwhile, looks like a prisoner of her own skin. Staples unite her scalp. Her forehead, normally a sprinkle of freckles, is swollen into a leaky jellyfish-like lump. Chin encased in a neck brace, she has violet raccoon eyes. Skin layers have been torn away into wince-inducing blotches on her heel, her hip, her knee, and she displays them, one by one.
"She was a mess," admits Minter, who visited Michelle in the hospital frequently, sent her balloons and delivered Dean & DeLuca sweets. "She lost all this weight. Her hair was falling out. She was a skeleton of what I knew."
"There were moments when she was saying that she loves me, but she doesn't think she's going to make it," James recalls solemnly. To cheer her up, he made her a sign that read "I [HEART] YOU AND THINK U ARE PRETTY." "It almost seemed like it. I've never seen anyone in that much pain personally. It seemed like something from the movies, like when you watch war movies," he pauses. "That was rough. That was very rough."
When Michelle finally left the hospital, after three weeks and change, James and his friends would realize that the cops weren't doing very much to help the case. So he and his friends resorted to their own grassroots-campaigning efforts, plastering Brooklyn lamp poles and local businesses and Facebook profiles with flyers of Michelle's unrecognizably puffy face—bandaged and bloody and bruised, stuffed into a Stormtrooper-like neck brace—begging for eyewitnesses. Conte was one of the four people who got in touch. He didn't get the license-plate number or see the driver, but remembers a girl that night who saw the car. "I think she even saw the person inside really quickly. I guess the police talked to her?"
That Saturday, he also recalls someone beside James wondering if they should get Michelle's mangled bike. "I said, 'No, leave it there,' thinking they'll maybe do an investigation or something." He pauses. "I guess that's a joke."
The NYPD complaint report identifies a 1990 Nissan Maxima as the vehicular culprit. The document also confirms the car was later found nearby the scene, on Banker Street between Norman and Wythe avenues. Turns out that automobile was registered to a Greenpoint address on the corner of Dupont Street and Manhattan Avenue, about a 15-minute walk away from the hit-and-run intersection: a big white-brick apartment building where the foyer-door lock is always broken and a first-floor air conditioner is secured in place with a plastic Folgers tub.
Jaime Conty Jr. was the name attached to the car. Neither of his first or last names are listed on any of the building's buzzers. A landline phone number associated with that full name just rings. A nearby business owner who spoke on the condition of anonymity described the groups of young men who loiter out front of this apartment cluster as "entry-level gangbangers"; on Tuesday, August 9, 2011, at approximately 11:25 p.m., there were angry-sounding voices audibly yelling from an upstairs window.
The NYPD officer assigned to the two-victim case was a Detective Almonte, who could not be reached for this article. (We were told he was on vacation.)
Michelle and James sat down at their Bushwick apartment to talk about the case with the Voice. A representative from Leav & Steinberg, the law firm handling their no-fault insurance suit, eavesdropped on speakerphone and hung up after an hour. (It was a summer Friday and you could tell the man was restless.)
"The police changed their story a few times," James said. "The first time they told us that night, the [car owner] left [a bar] with his friends, lost his keys, and went home. Later, when we called [Detective Almonte] back, maybe a week or so later and asked if he questioned [the car owner's] friends, he said, 'Oh, those weren't really his friends. He just walked home alone.' [The police] wouldn't tell us what bar or where or anything."
"Anytime we would press [Detective Almonte] for details, it was almost like he was annoyed with us," Michelle added.
"He would say stuff like, 'You trying to tell me how to do my job? You say I'm not doing my job?' " James said, Michelle nodding. "Then he would also say stuff like, 'You know, we got a lot of other cases, we're really busy,' kind of undermining our case. I'm sure they are busy, but still."
"After I got out of the hospital, I was calling [the 94th Precinct Detective Squad] all the time," Michelle remembered. "I was so upset and annoyed that obviously, all the evidence they could have gotten, they can't get now. I wanted answers: What did they try to do? What didn't they do? I'm laying here, I can't walk, I can't move without help, all I can do is think and think and think, over and over, like, 'Fuck this guy.' And I was asking [Detective Almonte], 'Did you check the video footage from the bar or along Franklin?' There're so many bars, so many cameras. Wherever the car was parked, from that point, to hitting us, to being abandoned—it must've been on tape somewhere?"
"Unless someone came through with that information completely, or [the driver] admitted to it, it didn't seem like they were willing to do any sort of investigation," James reiterated.
"Everyone who's a victim of an accident is entitled to have the police fairly and thoroughly investigate," interjected the Leav & Steinberg representative over the phone. "Sometimes they're looking for things and they don't have any help. Here, the witnesses are there, they found the car the same day, the bike was there, there were things to work with."
Michelle remembered why she stopped calling. "[Detective Almonte] was like, 'Listen, you should be lucky you're alive.' " This was the last time she spoke with anyone from the department. "It's like you can play Grand Theft Auto in the streets and hit real people and ditch your car and that's allowed," she said. "Honestly, I feel like the only way that this case would have gotten more attention is if I'd been brain dead or physically dead."
Reading stories of other bike accidents makes Michelle want to throw up. And there are many. Early this month, a 70-year-old cyclist got hit near Rockaway Beach by an unlicensed motorist; the 21-year-old operator was only charged for driving with a suspended license. The next day, a 29-year-old cyclist was run over in East Williamsburg by a truck driver, his helmet crushed; a police source told the Daily News that the bicyclist was at fault, so there were no charges. In a higher-profile instance, Ray Deter, the owner of a Lower East Side beer bar, died from injuries after being hit on Canal Street. The cops reportedly found marijuana in the Jaguar that hit him, yet as of now, no charges have been filed.
And then there are the hit-and-runs. "I just got slammed from behind by an unidentified driving object riding the right way down Wythe Avenue in the bike lane," recounts Fort Greene cyclist Serena Rio, 21, who got run down this past winter. "It was around 2 in the afternoon on a Friday, February 4. The driver fled the scene, there were no witnesses. I had a myriad of broken bones, knocked-out teeth, punctured lung, and a pelvis split in half. I spent two weeks in the ICU, two months in inpatient rehab, and three months, in total, unable to walk." Now working for the Bicycle Film Festival, she naturally feels pretty strongly about negligent operators. "It's an atrocity what happens not to only the bikers, but the lack of action taken against the villains in question."
Streetsblog, a five-year-old nonprofit, compiles a weekly tally of fatal motor-vehicle crashes, culled from the news. At last count in the five boroughs, there were 91 accidents, and 13 drivers charged. "The pattern you see is that reckless driving is not taken seriously by the police," says Streetsblog editor Ben Fried. "Whenever you see that a pedestrian or a cyclist is seriously hurt or killed, you can't count on the police to give you a detailed account of what happened," he notes, having researched the problem for more than three years. "When you do find out about the investigation, it just seems sloppy. We've had cases where witnesses say they gave their names to the police and they never got a call back, or they were turned away at the scene." He hadn't been following Michelle Matson's story, but calls her account of dealing with the police "not terribly surprising."
Nor is the experience of Rachel McCulloch, mother of 28-year-old Web designer Neil Chamberlain, a pedestrian fatally injured by a Greenpoint hit-and-run driver in the 94th Precinct. "I tried to follow up with the police investigating the accident," writes the Brandeis University professor in an e-mail. "It seemed their unit was understaffed relative to the workload, but it was hard for me to know whether that was true or just an excuse. I did call the precinct to complain that no one called me back after I left several messages, and after that I got a return call pretty fast—though the officer who called confused Neil with another victim with the same surname, which was not very reassuring." Chamberlain was also hit along Calyer Street.
Lately, Michelle has been sculpting guts. "I can't imagine why," she guffaws on a recent Friday in the Williamsburg studio where the artist now spends at least 20 hours a week. On a drawing board are prehistoric Wall-E-type creatures, paperweights made of eyeballs, chattering teeth, and plaster-cast balloon-animal intestines. Beside them is the top half of a bald man's salmon-colored scalp, his innards stretched out and suspended like taffy. In a display case to his left, there's the skinless bottom half of a head, comprised only of muscles, teeth, and that menacingly symbolic C-spine. "It's impossible not to make work about things that happen to you," she reasons. "Even if you don't intend on doing it, it just happens. I can't not."
Michelle can walk now, but she will never ride a bike again. "Just thinking about it grosses me out." She can't run or jog or even dance for more than five minutes. If she unintentionally ends up on a long stroll, she has to sit down periodically and wait for the pain to dissipate. "It's like your leg is a kid," she says, feigning a maternal whine, " 'Johnny's tired and we can't do anything because he's cranky!' I never really wanted a kid!"
There have been no arrests in Michelle Matson's case. Hit-and-run complaint No. 2010-094-03432 is still open, according to an NYPD spokesman, and thereby still under investigation. Yet Michelle hasn't spoken to anyone at the NYPD since January. The most serious offense listed on the paperwork is a misdemeanor, even though earlier this summer a Bronx woman was convicted of a hit-and-run felony for barreling over one of Mayor Bloomberg's aides and leaving her in a vegetative state. (Last week, the Brooklyn judge told the court the maximum penalty allowed by law was "inadequate.")
No one knows what John Doe remembers about October 23, 2010. He's the real-life Grand Theft Auto player, identified in the personal-injury suit that plaintiffs Michelle Matson and James Paz had to file jointly with Country-Wide Insurance, the New York–based company responsible for Jaime Conty Jr.'s vehicle, in order to collect claims for their Bellevue Hospital ambulance ride, medical bills Michelle's Medicaid didn't cover, and the lawyer they needed to handle the paperwork. Even with Medicaid, Michelle had to deplete her savings just to afford all the car rides: "Because of somebody else's error in judgment, I'm being completely and totally punished. And nobody else is."
Mr. Conty owes at least $443.27 for outstanding parking violations. All four 2010 offenses were originally a $45 fee, but unpaid penalties have made them balloon. No one knows if Jaime Conty personally left his Nissan there on Clay Street during street-cleaning hours to accrue all those fines, but he's the one ultimately responsible: Parking violations are explicitly charged to the "Name of the Operator, if present; if not present, Owner of the Vehicle Bearing License"; there's no mention of John Doe. The last street-cleaning fine was issued on October 18, 2010, five days before that same car would mow down Michelle and James. October 18 is also Michelle's birthday.
Coincidences can be cruel. That's the constant reminder of the two life-size yellow-haired acrobats dangling in Michelle's studio, limber figures she was focused on when that four-wheel monster bulldozed her body. "Gymnasts—and I couldn't move!" she declares now, with a despairing laugh. Her sister is a dancer; human flexibility was just something on Michelle's mind, until it became the only thing.
She finally returned to her studio on crutches this past February, forced to prop her ailing leg on a stool just to be able to withstand the strain. The athlete twins sat untouched since autumn, their skeleton existence something of an antagonistic gesture. "I finished them because it was a weird mental challenge," she explains. They were supposed to be part of a series. "I kind of lost interest after the whole accident." The pieces are presently untitled. "Maybe you could call them The Taunters?"