How NYPD Botched a Bike Fatality Investigation and Blamed the Victim

Based on interviews with two drivers who each admitted they did not see Stefanos Tsigrimanis until he was struck, conducted nearly two months after the collision, NYPD Detective Gerard Sheehan blamed Tsigrimanis for running a stop sign before he was killed.

One of the appalling revelations at the City Council hearing on NYPD traffic safety policies was the rarity of full-scale investigations into crashes that injure or kill people. Unless the victim dies at the scene or is deemed likely to die, the police who are trained to look into traffic crashes won’t take the case.

Not only does this mean that thousands of injury-causing crashes are handled by precinct cops with no special training, it also keeps NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad (AIS) from looking into some fatal crashes until the case is already stale.

Stefanos Tsigrimanis

In the case of Stefanos Tsigrimanis, a 29-year-old musician who was killed by a driver in Brooklyn in 2010, the AIS didn’t begin its investigation until nearly ten days after the crash. When they finally got around to it, AIS investigators produced a report that blamed Tsigrimanis — and no one else — for his own death.

Late in the afternoon on September 4, Tsigrimanis was biking north on Grand Avenue. As he crossed westbound Park Avenue, in the footprint of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, he was struck by Florida resident Archibald Torply, 50, driving a Nissan sedan. Tsigrimanis suffered head trauma and was rushed to the emergency room at Kings County Hospital. AIS officers responded initially, but they called off the investigation because an ER doctor determined that Tsigrimanis’s head injury was “non-life threatening,” according to a report in the investigative file [PDF]. (The file was obtained via a freedom of information request filed by attorney Steve Vaccaro. Streetsblog has redacted graphic descriptions from 911 transcripts in the file, in red. All other redactions were made by NYPD.)

At the hospital, doctors told Tsigrimanis’s girlfriend, Nicole Bergman, that he was in a coma and his chances for survival were slim. He did not recover after emergency brain surgery and died three days later, according to testimony Bergman gave to the City Council earlier this month.

But because police had called off the AIS investigation, no one collected photos from the day of the crash. Torply and another driver had been interviewed briefly, but that was it as far as witnesses. It wasn’t until September 13, when the medical examiner’s office informed police that Tsigrimanis had died, that AIS re-opened the case — nine days after the crash.

On October 20, 46 days after the crash, AIS went to the scene to look for additional witnesses and video cameras that might have recorded the collision. The only camera police found was pointed away from the crash site. Not surprisingly, no witnesses were located.

On October 31, Detective Gerard Sheehan spoke by phone with Torply and Sol Kleinman, the driver who was behind Torply at the time of the crash. According to their account, Torply was attempting to merge right at the moment of impact, while Kleinman said he did not see Tsigrimanis until he was in the air. Sheehan’s report reads as follows:

Male caller identified as Sol Kleinman states that Vehicle #1 was merging in front of his vehicle on Park Avenue. The man on the bicycle made a left turn from Grand Avenue onto Park Avenue causing the motorist to strike him. The caller states he didn’t see the bicyclist until he was already struck and airborne. Mr. Kleinman states that this collision was caused due to the bicyclist not stopping at the stop sign. Mr. Kleinman further states that he believed that the operator of vehicle #1 never saw the bicyclist, due to the fact that the motorists [sic] was yielding traffic to the right at the time.

Operator of Vehicle #1 [Torply] … states that he was merging into traffic from the west bound side of Park Avenue to the east bound side of Park Avenue. As vehicle #1 was merging onto the east bound roadway the bicyclist made a left turn from Grand Avenue, where there is a stop sign, in front of Vehicle #1. The operator states that the bicyclist appeared from left to right and was not seen until contact was made. There was little or no reaction time to stop the vehicle. When asked what was the cause of this collision Mr. Tosply [sic] stated that the bicyclist went through the stop sign located at Grand Ave and Park Ave.

Based on these interviews with Torply and Kleinman, Sheehan concluded that Tsigrimanis ran a stop sign and rode into Torply’s path. But Torply and Kleinman each admitted that they did not see Tsigrimanis until the moment of impact, so they couldn’t have observed whether he came to a stop or not. Nevertheless, nothing in the documents released by NYPD suggests the possibility of an alternate crash scenario. There are no references to driver speed.

On November 28, Sheehan (the same AIS detective who handled the investigation of the crash that killed cyclist Mathieu Lefevre) declared the case closed. NYPD’s public information office has not responded to Streetsblog’s request to interview Sheehan.

At last month’s City Council hearing, Vaccaro, who is representing Lefevre’s family, testified that by deploying the AIS only in cases where the victim is killed or believed likely to die, NYPD policy violates Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 603A, which in Vaccaro’s words requires that “a full­-scale AIS-style investigation be made in all cases of fatality or serious physical harm.” As it stands, in cases like Tsigrimanis’s, AIS officers miss their best chance to gather evidence from the scene, while victims who suffer serious injury never get the attention of trained investigators at all.

“All I expected from the investigation was closure, and the two week delay cost me that,” Bergman told council members. “If the ‘story’ of the crash had been based on more than the word of the driver, and if the police had proceeded with a serious investigation regardless of what seems to be an arbitrary designation of likeliness of death, I could have some peace of mind, but as it is I am left wondering and unable to rid myself of these feelings of injustice and grief.”

  • Killer Cars

    So was Torply making a U-Turn into the merge lane on Park?  I’m having trouble understanding what exactly (purportedly) happened.  But I do see the completely screwed up logic of “I didn’t see him until I hit him but I know he ran the red light.”  

  • Driver

    Even if someone stops for a stop sign, that does not mean they can simply proceed without regard to oncoming traffic.  If I stop for a stop sign in my car, I can’t just proceed in front of an oncoming vehicle and say “well, I stopped for the stop sign”.  I agree the report is not very clear in what exactly happened, and the NYPD procedure for investigating accidents like this is totally flawed and should be changed.  But if you stop for a stop sign, whether on a bike or in a vehicle, and proceed into oncoming traffic, you are still in effect blowing the stop sign. 

  • Potato

    Thanks, Driver, for the refresher on traffic laws.

  • @14a8960ffa19c6b0ffff4264aba1f641:disqus It’s hard to comprehend what Sheehan/Torply mean when they say Torply merged “into traffic from the west bound side of Park Avenue to the east bound side of Park Avenue” because that is plainly not what happened. 

    What happened was that Torply was traveling west on Park the whole time. When westbound Park meets up with the footprint of the BQE, it cuts underneath the highway and merges into the left lane of traffic on the other side. Tsigrimanis was approaching from Torply’s left, but Torply was looking right because he was merging.

  • @SB_Driver:disqus  If the oncoming driver is traveling at excessive speed, then the driver is culpable to some degree. Torply may have been driving too fast for Tsigrimanis to judge the opening in oncoming traffic. Nothing in the crash report indicates that the NYPD even considered the possibility that Torply was speeding.

    If you look at the crash location from Tsigrimanis’s perspective, you can tell that a speeding driver approaching from the merge lane would be especially hard to see before entering the intersection:

    http://www.google.com/maps?q=park+avenue+and+grand+avenue,+brooklyn+ny&hl=en&ll=40.695867,-73.964617&spn=0.010705,0.01605&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=45.553578,65.742188&hnear=Park+Ave+%26+Grand+Ave,+Brooklyn,+Kings,+New+York+11205&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=40.695942,-73.964606&panoid=H4g2Etxmmla3B4KiVyJQOQ&cbp=12,64.67,,0,-2.41

  • Killer Cars

    Ben, Thanks for clarification.  I understand now what happened and how speeding would have contributed to it.  That said, looking at the Google Maps pictures, I think this intersection is extremely poorly designed.  It looks like traffic could be coming from either direction toward that merge lane and neither side of the intersection can see cars coming from the merge lane very well.  There should be a light at that merger or at least a stop sign.

  • Driver

    Ben, you are right, I completely agree.
     Looking at the street view, it seems to me that the design of this intersection would make it hard to judge or see oncoming traffic that was even traveling at or close to the speed limit. 

  • Driver

    Just an observation, technically this is not a merge lane, the traffic that crosses under the BQE emerges into its own lane.

  • Anonymous

    It’s kind of interesting that if you go east on Grand you can see that the striped barrier between the two lanes was fairly eroded previously. I really have to wonder how long the biker was on the road for before being hit and perhaps if the speed at which the car was traveling combined with the drivers inattention was more of a cause of the accident than anything. If you back up to a little ways it’s pretty clear a bike and a car wouldn’t be able to see each other and I could easily see a driver already trying to gauge traffic from there to see where he could fit a lane change.

     http://maps.google.com/maps?q=grand+avenue+and+park+avenue+brooklyn+ny&ll=40.695998,-73.964242&spn=0.006654,0.016512&sll=40.695638,-73.964709&layer=c&cbp=13,291.2,,0,14.69&cbll=40.695965,-73.964112&gl=us&hnear=Park+Ave+%26+Grand+Ave,+Brooklyn,+Kings,+New+York+11205&t=m&panoid=v2D3OcPl4E-HVWq1L8Izww&z=17&source=gplus-ogsb

  • Eric McClure

    If there were a provision for the investigating officers to seize the car’s black box (assuming the car had one), it would have revealed the speed at which the car was being driven, and what actions the driver might have, or have not, been taking.

  • Brooklynite

    NYPD Detective Gerard Sheehan needs to be re-assigned to precinct janatorial service ASAP. What an utter embarrassment this guy is.

  • J

    What is the NYPD policy on vehicle-vehicle collisions? Do they only do a full investigation  when a fatality is suspected? Are most police trained to investigate these things or do they use AIS as well? 

    Also, I know that crossing well. It is terrifying since it is very difficult to judge gaps in 2 directions of car traffic at the same time, especially given that drivers treat that section as a drag strip. I avoid it like the plague. The engineering design at that location is for one purpose, to move cars quickly, and needs to be addressed as part of the fallout from this, since it certainly was a contributing factor. However, to not investigate all the contributing factors that lead to a crash, any crash, but especially one that leaves someone dead, is incredibly biased and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. It you never investigate speeding as a factor in crashes, speeding will never be determined to be a factor to crashes. The fault then wrongly shifts overwhelmingly to biker error.

  • Glenn

    I always think it’s amazing how motorists can defy logic and be taken seriously by police investigators.

    “I didn’t see him” = “He must have run a stop sign”

    If you didn’t see him, you cannot make any assertions about what he did. All we know at that point is that you were no aware of your surroundings while operating a moving vehicle. Period.

  • Anonymous

    Many years ago when I was still driving I had a collision where I turned my head to check my blindspot before changing lanes, just as the driver in front of me slammed on her brakes to avoid a left turning car.   I wasn’t going very fast, and it wasn’t even a fender bender (no damage to either car) but I can see how merging can affect people’s field of view in a way that’s not necessarily negligent.

    However to the larger point, I think that NYPD should change their policy to have the AIS called in any collision with a vulnerable road user where the bicyclist or pedestrian is taken to the hospital in an ambulance.   

  • B4daylight

    how do you cross under the bridge (he)

    Looks like the turn lane goes south? sidewalk?

  • B4daylight

    oops my bad

    So he was going against traffic? Grand looks like a oneway

  • Honeybee56

    Dear Ben,
    This happened to me.  My daughter was a pedestrian hit by a car.  The police did a poor investigation.  They did not inpound the car, they got the speed wrong, they did not cite the minor in possession of an open bottle of 42ounce of steel reserve in backseat, they did not give an admitted medical marijuana card who admits to smoking pot earlier 13hours before who has red eyes a blood test, they give a sobriety test 45 minutes after the accident, they let all witnesses stand around and compare notes.  But they told me that they debated to release to the media that my daughter had been drinking.  She was twenty five and her alocohol level was 0.04 she was legal,  The insurance lady said that was like drinking a beer.  The police  said my daughter should have know that she was not suppose to cross at this unmarked implies crosswalk with all the amenites of a crosswalk curbcuts, handicap ramp, street grade and a street light.  The biggest thing I learned from this is to get the police report, go back and get another copy about a month later because they will prbrably change it , hire your oun recontstructionist, do not hire  a lawyer unless you have to, look at the surroundings that could have been the casuse of the accident .  by  the  way the driver just go t a citation for seafbelty.  My daughter was five feet from the sidewalk.  She passed away six days later and is in Heaven.  I am seeking justice for my daughter.

  • Thanks for this piece.  I just noticed it after googling my close friend Stefanos’s name.  I was the first person called by NYPD after Stefanos was struck, perhaps because my number was the first one on his cellphone or I was the first person who answered.  Unfortunately, it was Labor Day weekend, and I was out of town and could not rush to the scene.  I can only say that the NYPD officer who called me — who was extremely kind and humane — made it very clear that Stefanos had no chance to survive. I am sure he did not have anything to do with the substandard investigation. It was immediately apparent that Stefanos would not pull through from the accident.  I always felt that the automobile driver had to have had some fault in this case but the investigation was clouded and as far as I know, no satisfactory legal action was pursued. Seeing this piece only confirms my long-time suspicions. Stefanos was a very important human being and this accident was extremely tragic. I am wondering how the case came to your attention? There have been far too many bicyclists who have been injured and killed and meanwhile, people fixate on bicyclists who they claim are reckless riders.  Stefanos was not reckless, he was brilliant and a wonderful person and he was in the prime of his life. 

  • JP

    I live near this intersection. I believe the accident occurred on the other side of Park Ave. (not the side shown in your Google Street View links). Park Avenue is a strange street: It runs in both directions, but on either side of the BQE.

    If you look at the hand-drawn diagram in the PDF of the police documents linked above, it appears that the accident occurred here…

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.6958726,-73.9647252,3a,75y,1.78h,93.58t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s-bC6OP82e6U-GnOVBjrsOw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    …with the car traveling right-to-left and merging into traffic. The driver would have been looking to his right, in order to merge.

    The bicyclist would have been riding on Grand in the direction we are looking. He turned left at the intersection directly in front of us.

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