Two days into the New Year in 2018, Dirk Cordtz stepped out into Nevada Avenue a couple of blocks from the homeless shelter where he had been living.
Moments later, he lay pinned and dying beneath a Ford SUV — the first traffic fatality in what would become the deadliest year on Colorado Springs’ streets.
Forty-eight people died on roadways across the city in 2018 — most of them drivers and passengers, and some of them bicyclists. An alarming number of them were pedestrians, most of whom were homeless, police investigators say.
Eight of the 13 pedestrians fatally struck by vehicles on Colorado Springs’ streets last year were homeless — more than twice as many as the previous two years combined.
There’s been no letup in the first month of 2019. On Jan. 10, another homeless man, Jeramy Hutchison, 42, was killed crossing North Academy Boulevard near Austin Bluffs Parkway, in what was the city’s second traffic fatality this year.
The only common factor in the deaths is that in every case the homeless pedestrians were crossing streets illegally — sometimes outside a crosswalk, others against traffic signals, said Sgt. Jim Stinson, who helps oversee the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Major Accident Unit. The same was true for Hutchison just 2½ weeks ago.
It was a problem that extended beyond the homeless community. Three of the other five pedestrians killed last year also were jaywalking, he said.
“We don’t like to use the term accident, because accident makes it sound like you’re a victim of fate, and these are preventable and avoidable.” Stinson said. “Each one of these car wrecks is a tragedy.”
In light of the deaths, several agencies are stepping up education campaigns that encourage people experiencing homelessness to stop jaywalking.
In addition to typical pamphlets and business cards offering contact information for a wealth of services, the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team has begun distributing business cards urging people to “Stay Safe COS,” suggesting they be aware of their surroundings when crossing, use crosswalks and avoid darting between vehicles, and to wear visible clothing and make eye contact with drivers when out on the streets.
Posters with those same recommendations have been posted at homeless shelters in the city, said Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator.
And Drive Smart Colorado paid about $1,500 to purchase 250 neon yellow beanies embroidered with the words “be safe, be seen,” to pass out to people experiencing homelessness. The hope is that people wearing them will be more visible to motorists.
“Bright colors are always a benefit, no matter the time of day,” said Maile Gray, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We need people to be more visible.”
Whether pedestrians making themselves more visible will help save lives is unknown.
But, Pamela Tower, 64, said she never saw John Trujillo, 66, until her car hit him in early November as he unexpectedly crossed against the light at Astrozon and South Academy boulevards.
Since the crash, she said she thinks about him “almost continuously.” She isolated herself socially, and hasn’t driven since — terrified that someone will jump out in front of her. Even as a passenger, the sight of someone standing alongside a road gives her panic attacks, she said.
The almost overwhelming sense of grief and loss — for the man she killed, and for such routine pleasures as taking a quick drive to see her daughter and grandchild — has led her to seek counseling.
“I don’t know if people are going to understand — I certainly didn’t before, of what happens after something like that, realizing it would change your entire life,” Tower said, weeping. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family, I don’t know what I would have done.”
While drivers, most of whom were not at fault, try to cope with the emotional toll, relatives of those killed are left with sorrow and questions.
“It’s awful — these drivers need to slow down and watch what they’re doing,” said Cordtz’s stepdaughter, Carrie Lance. “But also in the same token, pedestrians have got to be more careful. A lot of these pedestrian deaths are their fault.
“These guys, they have got to start watching, because even though you’re a pedestrian doesn’t mean it’s going to save you against an SUV. I always tell people: Don’t think you have the right of way, because it doesn’t matter.”
Witnesses told investigators that Cordtz was cutting across Nevada Avenue outside the crosswalk when he was struck the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2018, by a car turning left from Las Vegas Street, Stinson said. Nevertheless, Lance doesn’t want to believe it — her father “always crossed at this crosswalk — always.”
In their grief, other relatives of the homeless pedestrians killed in 2018 also have questioned whether police put in the same effort investigating their loved ones’ deaths as they did for victims who weren’t on society’s margins.
Among them is Doug Russell, whose 39-year-old son, Beau Russell, died on Oct. 23 while crossing South Academy Boulevard at Astrozon Boulevard in the crosswalk, but against the light.
No citations were issued, despite the fact that the motorist was going 59 mph in a 50-mph zone. About two weeks later, the speed limit on that stretch of South Academy Boulevard was reduced to 45 mph, due to the intersection’s rising body count.
“I just think it was all because they felt sorry for her,” Doug Russell said. “But that’s just me. I’m bitter — my son is dead. And this woman had no consequences at all, none.”
The intersection where Beau Russell died was one of three where most of the fatal crashes occurred — all of which were near homeless shelters or homeless encampments.
Two other people died over the following two weeks at that same intersection on the city’s east side. A 7-Eleven and several fast-food restaurants around the intersection are a short walk from an undeveloped area beside Sand Creek that is home to several camps.
Two more people — including Cordtz — died at Nevada Avenue and Las Vegas Street, just a couple of blocks from the Springs Rescue Mission’s sprawling and expanding homeless campus, which includes the city’s largest homeless shelter.
Another homeless person died at North Academy Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway, followed by Hutchison’s death near that same intersection this month.
At least half of the homeless pedestrians killed in 2018, including Russell and Cordtz, were using drugs or alcohol at the time of their deaths.
Beau Russell became homeless about two or three years ago after losing a job, his relatives said. He frequently stayed in touch with his family in other states, calling once a week or once a month to check in. The younger Russell was “the nicest guy you’d ever meet,” said his father, who still cries at night at the thought of his son’s death.
“When you’re laying there dead in the gutter, and people are going ‘Well he’s this homeless guy,’ I’m going ‘No, he was a member of the community, he worked, he had three children,’” Russell said.
Stinson said the time and effort his detectives put into investigating a traffic death and whether charges are filed are based on the circumstances, not whether someone is prominent or homeless.
“My detectives, they don’t care about anybody’s station in life,” Stinson said. “They’re out there looking at the facts.”
Stinson said no citations were warranted in Russell’s death because drivers in that part of town normally exceeded the roadway’s previous speed limit of 50 mph — eliminating carelessness in the officers’ eyes. He added that the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office prosecutors agreed with the officers’ recommendation.
In two other deaths of pedestrians who were jaywalking, Stinson said the drivers were arrested.
Investigators suspect Elizabeth Bennett, 29, was drunk when the vehicle she was driving fatally struck Essence Grant, 40, in late October at Academy and Astrozon boulevards. She has pleaded not guilty to several charges, including vehicular homicide.
Officers also tracked down and arrested Robert Valencia, 26, in connection with the hit-and-run death of Christopher Seal, 44, who died on Halloween near Academy Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway. Valencia has pleaded not guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, and other lesser charges.
Stinson said the bottom line is pedestrians need to be more careful — you can be in a crosswalk, crossing with the light, and still end up dead.
“It’s not just homeless people — you go downtown, you sit there and you watch people cross the street, and there’s almost — I don’t want to say arrogance — but an entitlement of people,” said Stinson, adding that pedestrians have a “you better slow down for me” attitude.
“If you get hit, you’re going to die,” Stinson added. “We as a community have got to come together and figure out a way to stop this.”
Beth Roalstad, chairwoman of the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, said drivers need to be more aware as well. The southern edge of downtown along Las Vegas Street has seen exponentially more foot traffic in recent years, as the Springs Rescue Mission has gone from sheltering just a few dozen people to several hundred.
It’s a reason for motorists to be more careful — much as they are around Palmer High School, where hundreds of students routinely cross downtown streets, she said.
“Shouldn’t we also offer the same consideration to adults experiencing homelessness?” Roalstad asked.