CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The number of drivers causing crashes and leaving the scene is going up at an alarming rate, officials said. Channel 9 learned that in the past five years, the rate of hit-and-run cases happening across the state has gone up 50 percent.
Eyewitness News spoke to a victim's family about their agonizing search for answers and got an in-depth look at the techniques investigators are now using to catch drivers.
[Click play to see the victim's mother goes through his personal items returned to her]
It's been more than three years since Reperzelle Ware lost her son.
"We miss him so, oh it hurts," Ware said.
His name was Carrington Ware but everyone called him Jake.
"Jake was just a special child because he had been very ill when he was little. They said he would never walk or talk, and he was doing all those things," Ware said.
He lived on his own with cerebral palsy until Feb. 15, 2014.
After days of being snowed in, Ware, who was 50 years old at the time, rode the city bus to celebrate a belated Valentine's Day with his fiancée.
Ware was crossing Alleghany Street near Pebblebrook Drive in Charlotte when relatives say a car hit him, circled back, then drove off. Police reviewed surveillance video from Harding High School but they never found the driver.
An Eyewitness News crew was there as Reperzelle Ware sifted through her son's belongings that police found at the scene for the first time.
"Who would just leave somebody laying on the side of the road?" Ware asked.
It's a question the family is still trying to answer, and one that more people are facing as the number of hit-and-runs in North Carolina rises.
Eyewitness News obtained numbers from the North Carolina Highway Patrol showing a steady increase of hit-and-run crashes.
There were about 10,000 hit-and-runs in 2012 and more than 15,000 in 2016.
"I couldn't do that to a dog, much less a person," Trooper Daniel Souther said.
Souther reconstructs accidents for the Highway Patrol. Over the past two years, he's been busier than usual.
"I don't really understand why there is a rise in it, other than I know there are lots of distractions and cellphones are a big distraction. People are constantly looking down," Souther said.
Souther gave an in-depth look at how he investigates hit-and-run cases.
"It could be just a small fleck of paint," he said.
Souther said his unit examines paint left on a victim's clothes and analyzes cellphone data and car records that can even show when an airbag almost deploys.
"In a pedestrian crash,
a lot of times the airbag does not deploy but it thinks about it because it feels the jar," he said.
Souther also reconstructs scenes during the same time of day with the same cars and conditions. He trains officers across the state and said many local police departments aren't equipped to do the same work.
"Most of the smaller departments don't have the resources the Highway Patrol has," he said.
For example, Statesville police were at a dead end trying to find who hit and abandoned Elijah Houpe in 2011.
Nearly four years later, the department called Souther. He used the same evidence they had on file and found the car that hit Houpe had been destroyed. But a paper trail led him to the suspected driver, Angela Price.
"I take it very seriously, because if it was my family member that was struck and left there to die, I would hate that," he said.
After three years, Jake's family is hopeful that they are also close to finding the driver who hit him.
"Have a heart for us and at least give us some peace," Ware said.
We checked with the detective investigating Jake Ware's death. Police don't have any new leads and are still asking people to come forward with information.
North Carolina hit-and-run crash data from the North Carolina Highway Patrol
Year NC cases Deaths Mecklenburg County cases
2012 10,385 15 652
2013 11,198 23 688
2014 11,626 20 881
2015 13,612 24 1,073
2016 15,353 23 1,377
Cox Media Group