John Zois Killed Melissa Montañez With His Car, Then Denver PD Blamed Her

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Melissa Montañez. Photo via GoFundMe

Melissa Montañez was walking back to her dorm room at Johnson and Wales University around 10 p.m. on July 18 when John Zois rammed her with an Acura MDX on Quebec Street near 23rd Avenue. The impact killed Montañez instantly.

Montañez, 19, was a culinary student. She wanted to own her own restaurant someday.

Montañez did not survive to give her account of the crash, and no third-party witnesses are cited in Denver PD’s crash report [PDF]. The only testimony comes from Zois, the person who struck and killed her, who said he “didn’t see her until she was in front of me.” Police did not ticket or charge him.

Denver PD estimated that Zois was traveling 35 mph on a 30 mph street. Did that information also come from Zois himself, or was it based on a more objective, accurate measurement from the vehicle’s event data recorder? The department has not responded to Streetsblog’s query about how it determined Zois’s speed.

(Update: After this story was published, Denver PD responded. “The estimated speed was calculated based on evidence at the scene, and there were three independent witnesses,” a spokesperson said. But the official report does not refer to this evidence or cite any independent witnesses.)

If Zois was driving 35, that’s still a violation of the law that increased the risk of a fatal collision, both by limiting his reaction time and increasing the force of impact. Nevertheless, police concluded that Montañez was to blame, saying she broke the law by crossing a through street mid-block.

Mayor Michael Hancock and Police Chief Robert White declared Denver a Vision Zero city earlier this year, purportedly committing to treat traffic deaths as preventable, not inevitable.

To prevent traffic fatalities, you have to know what causes them. But the Denver PD crash report boils down to a two-sentence narrative and a simple diagram of the crash. It fails to answer basic questions about why Zois didn’t see Montañez before it was too late. Was he distracted? Did the street design or lighting at that location contribute to the crash? The report doesn’t say.

There’s no mention of the deplorable pedestrian environment on Quebec — its razor-thin sidewalks or its rollover curbs that drivers can easily mount. No mention of the wide, speed-inducing street design that Public Works plans to make even wider so drivers can go even faster.

In cities that are serious about ending traffic deaths, the authorities don’t ignore these problems — they treat them. Instead of blaming people killed on the streets, they seek to create a street environment where people can make mistakes without paying with their lives.

Will the Hancock administration do anything to reduce motorist speeds on Quebec, or will potentially fatal velocities continue to be treated as an inevitable fact of life in Denver?

Will Denver PD keep conducting crash investigations as an exercise in blaming the victim, or will they start asking questions that can help prevent similar crashes from happening again?

To make progress on street safety, Denver PD needs to provide the Vision Zero Coalition, the public, and other city departments robust data, not scraps of biased information.