Suspect arrested in fatal I-80/94 crash

March 17, 2010 9:29:59 AM PDT
A suspect has been taken into custody after a hit-and-run that left a construction worker dead Tuesday.

Investigators have arrested but have not charged the hit-and-run suspect. He has reportedly been at the hospital recovering from injuries he also sustained in the crash, and he will be brought back to the Lake County, Indiana, jail.

"The pending charges are going to be reckless homicide and leaving the scene of an accident causing death. Both of those are felony charges," said Sgt. Ann Wojas, Indiana State Police.

The suspect was reportedly hiding out until he called a friend for help. The victim, Christopher Jenkins, 45, was part of a road repair crew patching potholes on I-80/94 early Tuesday morning. The repair crew from Walsh Construction had some lanes blocked as part of the work. Warning signs and barricades were also up to warn drivers to slow down.

Despite the warnings, a 1993 Mercury Cougar hit and killed Jenkins, according to police. An Indiana State Police official said the driver got out of his car and spoke to the construction workers before fleeing.

"The suspect called a family friend and wanted some assistance. And they were able to track that phone number down to a pay phone in Lake Station," said Wojas.

The victim lived in Valparaiso. Those who knew him there call him a great neighbor.

"He liked to garden. He always had corn, peppers, tomatoes and squash and was willing to give them to everyone in the neighborhood. He would share them with the rest of the neighborhood. He was a good joe. He was a nice guy," said neighbor Jill McGonigle.

"He was the most easygoing man, and he was congenial and friendly, and outside working all the time trying to improve his property," said neighbor Gwenn Rinkenberger.

Jenkins is survived by a wife, son and daughter.

Police say they found the suspect wearing the same clothes that he had on during the crash.

The driver who struck him ran away after talking with other workers at the scene.

The crash happened at approximately 1:30 a.m. in the westbound lanes of Interstate 80/94 in Lake Station, Ind.

It was dark, but police say the road was clearly marked, "construction ahead." Two lanes were closed.

Police say the Cougar shot down the closed lanes, hitting Jenkins and sending his body right into the windshield and the driver.

"He got out of his vehicle, spoke to one of the construction workers and then went toward the median barrier wall. The construction worker thought he was going to throw up, but he took off running," said Wojas. "Leaving the scene of an accident is bad, but when there's a death involved it's even worse. There's no excuse for it," said Rinkenberger.

Jenkins' Valparaiso neighbors say he had recently switched to the night shift. They wonder if more could have been done to protect him and other road workers.

In a statement, Jenkins' employer, Walsh Construction, said: "The Company's greatest concern is for the safety of its employees. Walsh works closely with the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana State Police on this project to protect its workforce and continues to cooperate with the police in their investigation of this tragedy."

"You would think people understand there are people out there at night putting themselves at risk and see the cones, know the laws, and obey just to slow down," said Dan Schuman, Jenkins' neighbor.

Police say they don't yet know if alcohol or drugs played a role.

"You're going to have to atone to somebody for something and some time. Better be sooner rather than later. Let Chris' family have some peace that whoever did this see their day in court," said Schuman.

Neighbors heard about the accident Tuesday morning and feared for Jenkins safety.

"Roz Varon said there was an accident on the Borman involving a worker. And I knew that is where Chris worked. And I just, you know, you just think about what if it was him? And I just had a bad feeling about it," said Tim Rickenberger, neighbor.

"He loved going to work. And as dangerous as it was or it seemed to me, he loved going and doing that kind of stuff. He could fix anything. So a real handyman," said Crock McGonigle, neighbor.