A 22-year-old Berwyn man was sentenced to 180 days of home confinement April 17 after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident where the car he was driving struck and killed a 40-year-old Forest Park man last summer.
At about 10:30 p.m. on June 1, 2014, Joel Mendoza was driving a 2000 Honda Accord southbound in the 1400 block of Harlem when he struck Jeffrey Schultz, an architect who had moved to Forest Park from Oak Park just about eight months before.
Schultz was riding his bicycle back to his two-flat in the 1400 block of Elgin Avenue from a bar in Berwyn, where he had just watched a Chicago Blackhawks playoff game. Schultz was struck and killed as he was attempting to cross Harlem Avenue.
In an emotional moment in Room 108 of the Maybrook courthouse, a tearful Mendoza, wearing a silver/gray button shirt and gray dress pants, turned to face Schultz’s parents, fiancée, brother and about seven of Schultz’s friends.
“I just want to say I’m sorry for the death of your son and friend,” Mendoza said. “I wanted to tell you this since the day it happened, but I was advised not to say anything to you guys. I just want to say I’m sorry.”
Schultz’s family and friends wanted Mendoza to serve time in prison. But Rachel Decker, Schultz’s fiancée, said she appreciated Mendoza’s statement.
“I do appreciate his apology,” Decker said after the sentencing. “I do, and I know it was heartfelt.”
But Decker and Schultz’s family are upset that Mendoza was not sentenced to any time in prison.
“No justice was rendered today,” Decker said. What the judge has essentially told us is that if you smash into someone with your car, don’t stop. Don’t try to help, don’t call 911. Go home and call your lawyer, because you’ll face negligible consequences in [Judge Paula Daleo’s] courtroom.”
Schultz’s father, Ronald, who on April 16 filed a civil lawsuit against Mendoza, was blunt.
“Being a coward pays off,” Ronald Schultz said of Mendoza’s decision to keep on driving after hitting Schultz.
Ronald Schultz said that he hoped to collect insurance money from his wrongful death lawsuit, which he termed a probate lawsuit.
Even though prosecutors asked for prison time for Mendoza, who could have been sentenced to a minimum of four years in prison on what was a felony charge, Judge Daleo said that she did not think prison was warranted, noting that Mendoza had no criminal record, is working and going to school.
“He is a good brother and son to his family,” Daleo said. “There is nothing in aggravation that I’ve found that would require me to send him to the penitentiary.”
Daleo also addressed Schultz’s friends and family.
“I don’t think putting somebody in jail will make your pain any less for you,” Daleo said. “This truly is a tragedy.”
Mendoza spent three days in jail after turning himself him in to police, accompanied by his attorney, Edmund Wanderling, about 14 hours after running down Schultz.
Daleo said Mendoza made a very bad decision to leave the scene of the accident.
“I believe that you exercised very poor judgment on the night that this happened,” Daleo told Mendoza.
Wanderling said that after the accident Mendoza contacted his mother and she called him.
“This was an accident,” Wanderling said. “He panicked and left the scene. This is a tragedy. … Everybody is leaving a loser.”
Mendoza was also sentenced to two years’ probation and will have to perform 150 hours of community service. If he violates his probation, which includes drug testing, he could be sent to prison for four years. As part of the plea agreement, a second charge of failing to reduce speed to avoid an accident was dropped.
An accident reconstruction report concluded that Mendoza was driving no faster than the 35 miles per hour speed limit.
Schultz’s parents and fiancée say that initial witness reports indicate that Mendoza was driving faster than that, and they believe that undue influence was put on the Forest Park Police Department to change the original accident reconstruction report. Forest Park Deputy Police Chief Tom Aftanas strongly denied that charge.
“I do feel bad for them,” Aftanas said Friday afternoon. “But I can guarantee that we were not influenced whatsoever, in any way, by anyone to change anything.”
Wanderling also said after the sentencing that he had no contact with the Forest Park Police Department.
In a letter to the Forest Park Review on March 17 in response to an earlier story about the case, Officer Richard Becker, the accident reconstructionist for the Forest Park Police Department, said a short time after submitting his report he discovered what he termed a “glaring error” in the mathematical computations used to determine the speed Mendoza’s car was going. The error made the car look to be going faster than it really was.
Becker said he immediately corrected his mistake and amended the report to explain the original error. Becker said that he immediately contacted the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to inform them of the error.
“If one were to read the report, they would clearly see that none of the numbers used to calculate speeds were changed or altered; the issue was solely a unit conversion error, an error that was corrected before that information was used in any court proceeding,” Becker wrote. “I have never, and would never, alter my work to convict or exonerate any individual investigated.”