November 9, 2008
Hit-and-Run: Death in a 'Sanctuary City'By David Paulin
It was one of the strangest hit-and-runs police had ever seen in Austin, Texas. Early last September, officers answering a call at 4:19 a.m. found a young man dead along a highway. They surmised he was a motorcyclist. He was, after all, wearing motorcycle garb -- a helmet, black-leather jacket, boots. A few hundred feet away, officers spotted a single skid mark running down the highway, and disappearing from sight. Oddly, no motorcycle could be found.
A check of the victim's driver's license revealed his name: Eric M. Laufer.
Laufer, 25, was a highly-regarded musician and songwriter in Austin -- and unlike many musicians here, the graduate of Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music was politically conservative. Laufer's political leanings and interest in politics were a new passion, say his friends. He'd enthusiastically supported the presidential candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul, the Republican congressman from Texas who, among other positions, advocated a get-tough policy on illegal immigration and border security.
Laufer made no secret of his political views, even though open-borders Austin is a bastion of ultra-liberal politics -- and often extremely intolerant of Republicans. On his Harley-Davidson, he prominently displayed a campaign sticker: “Ron Paul for President 2008.” And even after Paul dropped out of the race months ago, Laufer continued sporting the sticker. It was on his motorcycle when he died -- the victim, ironically, of an “undocumented worker” who was probably from Mexico. Laufer's motorcycle was rear-ended by a SUV traveling at a tremendous rate of speed. He was killed instantly.
Laufer died amid an epidemic of deadly hit-and-runs in pro-Obama Austin, the state capital. The epidemic is being fueled in part by illegal immigrants and unassimilated young Hispanics -- young men who, according to police statistics, engage in drunk driving in this city of 740,000 much more frequently than other ethnic and racial groups.
In recent years, the Hispanic population in Austin has undergone explosive growth, thanks to its high birth rates and the city's status as a “sanctuary city” -- a safe haven for illegal immigrants. Most who settle here illegally are from Mexico's lowest socio-economic classes. In Texas, this immigration is fueling major demographic changes -- and profound cultural changes too. In recent years, the state's white Anglos have become a minority (49 percent) -- a “majority-minority” as the news media call it. Hispanics are now estimated to be 35 percent of Austin's population, making them the largest minority group after whites.
The Other Austin
Three years ago, Laufer visited Austin for the first time with fellow band member and songwriter Shane Kiel, 29, also a Berklee graduate who eventually supported Ron Paul. The young musicians liked the city, and so they relocated their up-and-coming band here, “The Two Timin' Four.” Only after living for a while in Austin did they realize it was not one city -- but two. They knew all along about hip and sophisticated Austin -- its hi-tech companies, swinging music scene, and the University of Texas. But now they glimpsed scenes from the other Austin when driving around the city and past certain neighborhoods. It wasn't so hip and sophisticated.
Here's where tens of thousands of illegal immigrants live, all enjoying Austin's status as a “sanctuary city” -- a safe haven for illegal immigrants. Most are Mexicans from big-city slums or impoverished rural areas. “I can take you to entire blocks where there are nothing but undocumented immigrants, or whatever you call them these days,” observed an Austin police detective in the vehicular homicide unit, Chad Francois, during an interview for this story.
Illegal immigration was a forgotten issue in the election campaign. Yet national opinion polls have consistently shown it's a major concern for ordinary Americans. It was a concern for Laufer, too, a native of upstate New York who saw its negative impact up-close for the first time in Austin, his friends recall. “Our country was important to Eric,” said Alyson Behrendt, 28, who is Kiel's girlfriend; she'd also supported Ron Paul. Eventually, they and Laufer became volunteer workers in Paul's election campaign.
Recalling the early stages of the congressman's presidential bid -- before they supported him -- Behrendt said: “We were all of us constantly searching, asking: What is the truth? We were totally against the NAFTA Super Highway.” So was Rep. Paul, who contended it would undermine America's national sovereignty.
In Austin, the four-man band and Behrendt rented a house together in a middle-class area, right across from a public school whose students were overwhelmingly Hispanic. Behrendt, a therapist in a chiropractor's office, looked at many of the Hispanic moms dropping off their kids, and she winced: They were just teenagers, not much older than their kids. In Boston, she'd never seen anything quite like that.
It was one of her first introductions to the other Austin, with large segments of its Hispanic culture having less in common with traditional American culture than with Mexico's. Austin's schools that are heavily populated by children of illegal immigrants, for instance, suffer unacceptably low academic performance, along with soaring truancy and dropout rates. Nearly all of Austin's gangs are Hispanic.
Besides enforcing immigration rules, Rep. Paul opposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants and wanted to close constitutional loopholes granting citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants. In other words, he wanted immigration rules obeyed and border security enforced -- things that neither President-elect Obama nor Sen. McCain ever addressed with similarly serious and uncompromising policies.
A small-government and pro-life Republican, Paul was on the Republican fringe on many issues, to be sure. He wanted to abolish the IRS and withdraw U.S. troops from long-term commitments abroad; he'd opposed the resolution authorizing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But in respect to illegal immigration, he reflected the sentiments of most Americans, including many native Texans of Hispanic heritage -- solid members of the middle and upper-middle classes who've lived here for generations.
Regarding illegal immigration, Rep. Paul asserted:
The police investigation into Laufer's death says much about life in a sanctuary city, and about how Austin's open-borders policy has negatively affected its culture and quality of life.
And if Laufer's death reflects national trends, the hit-and-run driver who killed will never face justice. In Austin and elsewhere, most hit-and-runs remain unsolved. Often they occur at night, when there are few if any witnesses. Police investigating Laufer's death, however, got a lucky break hours into their investigation on Thursday, Sept. 4.
At the end of a solitary skid mark extending for 1.16 miles (6168.5 feet), officers found Laufer's shattered 2003 Harley-Davidson Sportster. And wedged between the ground-up rear tire and motorcycle's frame, they found a crumpled license plate: Z23JXB. It was registered to a 1995 GMC Yukon. The owner lived nearby. Going to the apartment complex, they found the SUV: It had front-end damage consistent with a collision with a motorcycle. The front license plate was missing.
It wasn't until the following Saturday that detectives determined exactly how Laufer died, after they'd temporarily closed a major highway to investigative Austin's biggest crime scene in memory involving a fatal hit-and-run. But for now, they were anxious to question the owner of the GMC Yukon.
Inside the owner's apartment, officers found what Det. Francois called a fairly typical scene in such cases: A two or three-bedroom unit occupied by a number of Spanish-speaking men and women, all presumably from Mexico. None spoke English. Det. Francois posed no questions about their immigration status. In sanctuary cities like Austin that's how things are done -- and there's a reason for this, say top police commanders.
If police enforced immigration laws, they contend, illegal immigrants would be reluctant to report crimes and to cooperate with police. Officers thus asked only about who'd been driving the Yukon: It was Jose Luis Dorantes they were told; he'd borrowed the vehicle. However, “Nobody could tell us what he was doing that night or why he had the vehicle,” Det. Francois related, in response to specific questions. He added: “They cooperated just enough to stay out of trouble.” In such cases, it's a typical reaction -- being minimally cooperative, he said.
And how did the group react when told the Yukon had killed an American on a motorcycle? The detective found them utterly indifferent. “I didn't see any emotion out of anyone of them: No shock, no disbelief, no question of where or when or anything.” It's the “reaction I've seen before,” he said, explaining it may be due to certain “cultural” issues. He didn't elaborate, but such cultural issues are addressed in a training manual used at an Austin police academy; it's a Berlitz-style guide on Spanish language and culture. “Latinos” it states,
"...will most likely side with each other than an outsider. An individual will assist family members and friends regardless of the consequences, and expect the same in return. A sense of honor is so important in Latino culture, that it may keep an individual from cooperating with the police against a friend or family members, even though he or she may not condone any of the actions."
Nobody, supposedly, had any idea where Dorantes had gone. But officers at least learned that he did menial work at a local restaurant, one Det. Francois called “pretty well established.” Detectives who went there got a reaction they've come to expect: People said as little as possible. According to Det. Francois, local businesses are “usually” cooperative when police show up about an undocumented worker who's a crime suspect; however, most “would rather that I force their hand” to obtain information. This may be for “a variety of reasons” -- concerns over lawsuits, advice from lawyers, or due to corporate policy, he said. Accordingly, he routinely obtains a subpoena requiring a business to be forthcoming.
The detective declined to mention the restaurant's name, since the hit-and-run case remains open.
Who is Jose Luis Dorantes? Police only know he's 20 years old, is probably a Mexican, and “I wouldn't be surprised if he was (here illegally),” related Det. Francois. Police “couldn't find any documentation on him,” he said: No Texas driver's license or other “ID.” It's what police often find in hit-and-run cases involving “undocumented workers,” he said.
Determining the identity of an undocumented worker like Dorantes is problematic for two reasons. For one thing, Austin's police have no access to Mexico's driver's license data base. Secondly, they lack seamless access to every U.S. state's driver's license database.
Two things about Dorantes seem certain. He knew early on that police were looking for him -- his roommates and pals at work no doubt tipped him off about all the gringo cops asking about him. Moreover, he won't be turning himself into police. Accordingly, Austin's police obtained an arrest warrant for Dorantes 16 days after he disappeared
The warrant went into a nationwide law-enforcement database. So if police detain Dorantes anywhere in the U.S. -- perhaps for a routine traffic violation -- a computer check will show he's wanted by Austin's police for felony manslaughter and failure to stop and render aid to an injured person. Catching Dorantes like this, of course, presumes he's still using the name Jose Luis Dorantes (if that ever was his real name). And it presumes he's not in Mexico.
Laufer's death generated significant coverage in the local media. Yet curiously, not a single news outlet mentioned anything about Dorantes' problematic immigration status -- even though the vehicular homicide unit's main contact in the case, Det. Francois, was accessible and happy to answer questions. How to explain this?
In open-borders cities like Austin, members of the news media are part of the ruling and intellectual elites. Democrats and Republicans alike, these elites consider themselves part of a global economy, one in which national borders are a nuisance. Accordingly, Dorantes' problematic immigration status is considered irrelevant -- not worth a mention. He had a right to be here as far as they're concerned.
Days after Laufer's death, the Austin American-Statesman ran a trend story about the fatal hit-and-run epidemic. Laufer was the 11th person killed by a hit-and-run driver up until his death. Austin had suffered “151 hit-and-runs that caused injury or death through July 28,” the daily paper reported. “In each of the previous two years, there were 286.” "It's a significant problem,” Police Chief Art Acevedo remarked.
But those hit-and-run figures fail to tell the whole story, noted Det. Francois. “What the public hears about (from the media) and what is actually happening is very different. There are between 800 and 1,000 leaving-the-scene collisions ever month, but the ones you generally here about are only those involving serious injuries and death.”
Austin has definitely got some contradictions. It fancies itself as a bastion of enlightened left-wing politics -- an island of progressive policies and lofty civic virtues in a state bristling with nutty gun-totting Republicans. And yet there's all those hit-and-runs -- one of the most anti-social crimes imaginable.
A few decades ago, it was rare to see the kinds of hit-and-runs now occurring regularly here and elsewhere. Now, it's no longer shocking to hear about a motorist in Austin who runs down yet another pedestrian or bicyclist on a dark street or highway -- and then drives off leaving the person to die.
How to explain this dark side of Austin? In an angry letter in the American-Statesman, one resident attributed the hit-and-run epidemic to Austin's “culture of civic narcissism and road rage.” The real Austin, he wrote, is filled with “self-indulgence and egotistical lack of concern for others.”
Elsewhere in the country, the number of hit-and-runs has surged upwards in recent years. And while this has yet to become part of a national discussion, regional and national media outlets occasionally spotlight the trend. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says hit-and-run fatalities have climbed dramatically. They're up 20 percent in five years,” NBC News reported one year ago, referring to pedestrians killed by hit-and-run drivers.
Two years ago, the Arizona Daily Star took a close look at an epidemic of hit-and-runs in its own state. It concluded: “The states with the highest percentages of hit-and-runs among fatal crashes from 1994 to 2004 are also the states with the most illegal immigrants.”
In Austin, police say motorists flee accidents for a variety of reasons, including that they've got immigration problems, were drinking, or because they have no motor vehicle insurance; an estimated one-in-five Texas motorists drive without the required insurance. Other motorists may flee simply because they “just don't like the police,” Det. Francois remarked.
Aside from what motivates hit-and-run drivers, there can be little doubt that Austin's Hispanic culture -- not known for its civic engagement values -- is a significant driver of the hit-and-run epidemic. “Of 3,007 drunken driving arrests in 2002, 43 percent involved Hispanic men, even though they make up only about 11 percent of Austin's driving population,” reported the American-Statesman, citing police statistics. "Hispanics made up 47 percent of the DWI arrests but only 21 percent of Austin drivers.”
According to the article, young Hispanic and Mexican men tend to drink more heavily than non-Hispanic men when they drink; and many Mexican men are unaware that penalties for drunk driving in the U.S. are stricter than in Mexico. Raul Caetano, a professor and assistant dean at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, told the paper: "The profile of a drunk driver in California is a young Hispanic male, and I bet you have a similar situation all over the Southwest."
Predictably, Austin's Hispanic advocacy groups and others accused Austin's cops of racial profiling, contending that Hispanic motorists were simply being targeted more often than motorists in other ethnic groups. Police rejected these charges.
The Statesman's story left out some interesting details. With respect to Hispanics arrested for drunk driving, it failed to distinguish between those who were here legally or illegally. Nor did it describe the backgrounds of the Hispanic men arrested for drunk driving. Were they, for instance, born in impoverished parts of Mexico with all the pathologies that exist there? Or were they born in America to poorer Mexican immigrants who still identify more with Mexico than America? Or were they the children of solidly middle-class Texans of Mexican heritage: people who can trace their families back several generations in Texas; people who for the most part are not pleased about the flood of poor and uneducated immigrants coming into Austin from Mexico, and that are changing the character of neighborhoods and schools for the worse.
So much for Austin's commitment to “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” things that Austin's liberal elites insist are strengths to be celebrated and embraced. Dare to disagree and you risk being called a “racist” or “xenophobic.” The hypocrisy of these elites is underscored by where they live. Overwhelmingly, it's in upscale neighborhoods and condos -- places that suffer none of fallout from their social engineering.
Texas and other Southern states have for years been known for a certain archetype -- an anti-social figure the Redneck. Stereotypically loud and boorish, he's supposed to be the white guy who inhabits an insular little world, and comes from a background that some call “white trash.” Occasionally, you see these Rednecks crashing around Austin in macho pick-ups and SUVs. However, many avoid Austin.
In recent years, however, a new mode of Redneck has become common in Austin; what might be called the Hispanic Redneck. His vices are similar to his white counterparts. He crashes around in big macho pick-ups, SUVs, and maybe in souped-up cars with tinted windows and frilly hubcaps. He drives aggressively and squeals his tires to show off. He's got lots more tattoos than his white counterpart -- and far stranger ones. And when he drinks and drives, he's more intoxicated than his white counterpart. Or so legend has it.
Above all, the Hispanic Redneck lives in a far more insular world than his white counterpart -- and so do his children: Many grow up to look just like him. He has no connection to a civic culture. If he's “undocumented” he often pays no taxes. He feels entitled to special treatment from social service agencies and high-minded churches supporting illegal immigration, according to common complaints in Austin.
And if he was born in Mexico, he expects to be spoken to in Spanish. Filled with ethnic chauvinism, he has no desire to learn English. In fact, he looks down upon native Texans of Mexican heritage, people who identify with America -- not Mexico. Indeed, one local manager of a Tex-Mex restaurant, during an interview with the Statesman (“Born here, Born there”), complained of kitchen workers, presumably Mexicans here illegally, who poked fun of customers who were Americans of Mexican heritage -- all for the sin of “acting American.” Behind their backs, they'd insult them with ethnic slurs, complained the restaurant manager, a Texan of Mexican heritage.
No doubt, these kitchen workers have much in common with the old-fashioned white Redneck. For them, it makes more sense to drive away from an accident and return to their insular neighborhoods of “undocumented workers.” Why deal with gringo cops? And why interact with a world they have no part of except to the extent that it gives them a better living than they had in Mexico. Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!
Late one night, one of these Rednecks was driving a macho SUV at tremendous speed, bearing down on a Harley-Davidson driven by Eric Laufer, a man known as a safety-conscious motorcyclist. Two physical objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time: Perhaps the same may be said of two cultures that are alien to one another.
Last Ride Home
Laufer was minutes away from home when he died; the exit ramp he would have taken was just ahead of him. It had been a long night. Hours earlier, he'd done a singing gig in San Antonio with another band, earning about $100. Like other band members (and struggling musicians everywhere), Laufer worked extra jobs to pay off personal debits and those associated with the band, including expenses for its publicist and an album it had cut. Laufer could have driven a van the band used; but with gas prices so high, he decided to take his Harley.
What must Laufer have been thinking as he neared the end of his trip, the deep rumble of the Harley in his ears, a cool breeze in his face? Perhaps it was about a new song he was writing or the future of the “The Two Timin' Four.” An accomplished band, it was still fine-tuning its sound. It was an American sound; a hybrid of what the band members described as a modern influence of “rock 'n' roll, pop, jazz, and punk.
Over the past few years, the band had toured widely in America and Europe. In Italy, it opened a Jerry Lee Lewis concert attracting 10,000 people; and in France, it played at Euro Disney outside Paris. Not surprisingly, the band found the French to be not so friendly.
Police have not doubt about how Laufer died: Dorantes slammed into the rear of his Harley at a tremendous rate of speed. As the arrest warrant noted, Dorantes' SUV left no skid marks. The reason is because he never braked -- either before or after the collision.
Instead, he kept going, pressing the accelerator pedal toward the floor. No matter that -- right in front of him -- a motorcycle was struck upright to his SUV's grill. And for a few seconds, he even could see Laufer's body on the motorcycle and SUV's hood, before it flew onto the highway 317 feet after impact. By then, Laufer was dead. According to the medial examiner, the horrific impact ripped his heart from its arteries and veins; his brain was severed from its spinal attachments.
The riderless Harley's rear tire left a single skid mark as Dorantes roared down the highway -- a shower of sparks and burning rubber right in front of him. "I don't think there is any way he (Dorantes) could not have known that the motorcycle was attached to his SUV for over a mile," Det. Francois told a local news outlet. "Between the sparks and the smell and the bike being feet in front of his face, after an impact there's no way he could have not known.”
A witness told of seeing a SUV race down an exit ramp at 80-85 mph -- a motorcycle attached to its front end. The Harley broke loose not far away, sliding onto a traffic island. Its rear tire was pulverized, its rear rim structurally destroyed.
Near the point of impact, the skid mark from the Harley's tire zigzagged along the highway, suggesting to Laufer's friends who visited the site that Dorantes was swerving violently to dislodge the motorcycle.
Why did Dorantes flee, leaving Laufer's body on the highway? Why has he eluded police? To Behrendt there's a simple explanation: “It about how he was raised.” Ultimately, she said, her friend died because immigration rules are not enforced: “It's all about cheap labor.”
Within hours, news reporters and Internet chat sites were full of information about Laufer's death. Having toured America for several years, “The Two Timing' Four” were well known among many musicians, and Laufer's affable and jocular personality had endeared him to many. He could make anybody laugh,” Behrendt recalled. “He liked to entertain people, but he did not necessarily want to be at the center of attention.”
The horrific nature of the hit-and-run shocked and angered many residents -- especially motorcyclists who are well aware of Austin's hit-and-run hazard. And so in a burst of civic spirit, a local Harley dealership and residents soon organized a memorial motorcycle ride and day-long music festival for Laufer. The goal was to honor Eric's memory, raise awareness for motorcycle safety, and help Eric's family cover his funeral expenses.
Laufer's parents, both motorcycle enthusiasts, were invited to ride in the event planned for Saturday, Nov. 8. Besides his parents, Laufer is survived by a sister.
Motorcyclists planned to pass the spot where Laufer died, and then ride out to the Texas Hill Country, home to the popular Nutty Brown Cafe. That's where 12 bands volunteered to provided entertainment throughout the day. All proceeds go to Laufer's family, say organizers.
The event says much about American (and Texas-style) civic virtues. Not to mention the empty spaces left behind by a young musician who would never realize his full potential.
At the festival, the three surviving members of the “The Two Timing' Four” planned to play for the last time together. “We're not playing any more (as a band). We'll play at the benefit, and that's it,” said Kiel, during an interview. “There is no point in trying to find another singer, because it would be a totally different band.”
"It's safest to say that the band's members will move onto other projects. We did what we could.”