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

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 4.37.01 PM
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.

  • John Riecke

    We’re so used to death we don’t question it. Even after making the commitment to change and focus it’s hard to change habits and perceptions. Thank you for pointing out that truly changing our frame is going to take concerted effort and more conviction.

  • spr8364

    Tragic though it may be, sometimes the victim is at fault. We’ll never know in this case, but blaming a potentially innocent person is an irresponsible and dangerous act.

    • Roads_Wide_Open

      1) Thanks, stated perfectly…it shows how much a writer can be slanted when the moral of a story is based on an assumption. 2)Oh, and Vision Zero is a joke. 3)roadway and sidewalk improvements will take place along Quebec at this location in a few years. However, it’s impossible to draw conclusions that those improvements would have prevented this. 4)if she crossed mid-block, then yes, she put herself in due danger. 5 MPH difference in speed would not be a reason why the driver was more at fault than her.

      • JerryG

        It not so much that there was only a 5 mph difference, it’s that the driver was speeding. He was in violation of the law and so he should bear more of the responsibility. And, that 5 mph difference does make a big difference on survivability.

      • Mr H.

        You want to talk about “slant”? Do you think your complete pro-car, I-won’t-listen-to-or-acknowledge-facts stance is not slanted? Let me guess, you believe you’re the “fair and balanced” voice in this conversation, right? Next time you feel the need open your trap, please have some data to back up your position.

      • Tattler

        Vision Zero is a joke because of people like you. We have a transportation system that kills 35,000 Americans every year thanks to the “roads wide open” mentality that refuses to acknowledge that road “improvements” like widening Quebec put people’s lives at risk.

    • MT

      Blaming the victim is irresponsible and dangerous.

      • spr8364

        I wasn’t talking about that.

  • Bernard Finucane
  • Maryanne Appleseed

    I still cant fathom how this could happen to such a wonderful person, my best friend in the world. To have her life taken away &blamed for it is disgusting. They act like they dont even care about how it was the drivers fault. Of course it was, he was driving, supposed to keep his eyes on the road. If he was paying more attention maybe he wouldve seen her and she’d still be alive. I hope this John Zois lives with this in his conscious untill the day he dies. As well as the DenverPD they should be ashamed of themselves.