The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Lyft driver picked up 2 friends after night out in D.C. None made it home.

The three were killed when an SUV fleeing a traffic stop plowed into their sedan, authorities said. The SUV had racked up more than $12,000 in unpaid tickets.

Mohamed Kamara, left, with his nephews, 11-year-old Adam and 6-year-old Aayan, at a D.C. United game in July. Kamara, a Lyft driver, was killed on Wednesday morning when an SUV fleeing a traffic stop collided with his car. (Mohamed Fofana)
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Long before the sun set over Washington on Tuesday, Mohamed Kamara had started to prepare for his late-night driving for Lyft.

He brushed the inside of his Honda with a broom, wiped down the outside with a microfiber cloth, and banged the floor mats against the driveway. Then, according to his brother-in-law, the 42-year-old slipped an envelope with $50 to his next-door neighbor to wish her daughter a happy first birthday.

A few hours later, while Kamara was taking his pre-shift nap, Olvin Torres Velasquez, 23, wrapped up his 14-hour work day at a restaurant in Arlington. He closed the cash register, ate ceviche, and told his co-worker how excited he was to watch the Honduras soccer team play that night. After his team lost, Torres Velasquez and his longtime friend and neighbor, 23-year-old Jonathan Cabrera Mendez, went for a late dinner in D.C., according to Torres Velasquez’s relatives.

The friends met Kamara in the wee hours of Wednesday, when the young men called a Lyft home.

Then, in a single instant on Rock Creek Parkway, they were killed.

Authorities say an SUV driver fleeing a traffic stop, in a vehicle that city records show had racked up more than $12,000 in unpaid traffic fines, plowed into their car. The two occupants of the SUV, a man and a woman, were transported to hospitals with injuries initially believed not to be life-threatening, though police said the woman’s injuries were later critical. By Friday evening, police had not identified the driver or charged anyone in the crash.

Efforts to reach Mendez’s family were not successful. Lyft did not respond to request for comment Friday afternoon.

SUV in Rock Creek Parkway crash had more than $12k in traffic fines

The deadly crash has sparked conversation citywide about whether D.C. needs to do more to keep habitual traffic offenders off the road. It was not clear who was driving the SUV. Most of the vehicle’s $12,300 in traffic tickets were for speeding violations, according to the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles website. Minutes before the crash, U.S. Park Police said that an officer had tried to stop the driver of the SUV around 1:30 a.m. for a speeding violation that the officer saw.

“We as a family feel outraged,” said Leslie Torres, Torres Velasquez’s cousin. “This person owed $12,000 in tickets, for speeding. Why haven’t the authorities done something?”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who newly chairs the council’s transportation planning board, said the city should have a “larger conversation around enforcement of traffic violence and of speeding.” He previously said he would hold a hearing this spring focused on enforcement strategies to keep dangerous drivers off the roads.

In an interview with The Post on Friday afternoon, Allen said the District should consider lowering the threshold for reckless driving and increasing the ability to boot a car.

In D.C., as in many other jurisdictions, police and other city authorities can use various tactics to target traffic offenders. If a police officer pulls over a driver and hands out a ticket, the infractions can result in driver’s license points and, eventually, the loss of a license. But if the violations are captured by a traffic camera — as in the case of the SUV — a vehicle can rack up fines that the car’s owner is responsible for paying, but the person or people driving those cars can maintain their licenses.

If vehicles have two or more tickets that remain unpaid and uncontested after 30 days, the District can boot, tow and seize them. But employees with the city’s towing and booting authority must spot the vehicle parked in a public space.

Allen said the city’s towing and booting authority team was severely short-staffed until last year, when the budget increased for that program.

D.C.’s traffic safety strategy lacked funding, oversight, audit finds

Family members of Kamara and Torres Velasquez expressed outrage that the SUV was allowed on the road, calling for the driver to be held accountable and for laws in D.C. to change to prevent another speeding-related death.

“This shows there is a shocking lapse in the system,” said Mohamed Fofana, Kamara’s 44-year-old brother-in-law. “I don’t want another family to go through what we are going through. This did not have to happen.”

Fofana said Kamara had lived with him and his family in Burtonsville, Md., since emigrating from Sierra Leone in 2017, where he had taught high school math and science. Fofana described his brother-in-law as a “quiet and humble” man who was so slow and deliberate in everything he did that his family jokingly called him “Sloth.” Fofana said Kamara was similarly cautious while driving and always hated fast cars on the road.

Kamara loved to play soccer (his favorite sport) with his nephews, Fofana said, and even altered his Lyft schedule to be home so he could see the young boys to their bus stop in the morning. He was working extra hours this winter to save up for his first trip to see his wife and daughter in Sierra Leone.

Kamara’s 11-year-old nephew, who liked to barge into Kamara’s room and ask him for a ride to McDonald’s, was the one who found the police note saying his uncle had died, Fofana said.

Relatives and friends of Torres Velasquez said they are still seeking information and answers from police about what happened, why the driver was on the road in the first place, and why police did not chase him after he fled that night.

But mostly, they said they are mourning the young man.

His aunt, Luz Marina Torres, also of Arlington, said Torres Velasquez was 17 years old when his mother sent him to Virginia because of safety concerns in their home country, Honduras. The eldest of four children, Torres Velasquez was helping his mother pay to build a home in Honduras, Marina Torres said.

His mother, she said, is inconsolable, unable to talk, and waiting for her son to return home.

Relatives and friends described Torres Velasquez as someone who worked hard, was humble and didn’t like trouble. He spent his spare time with his family and friends and his primary hobby was to watch soccer matches. The rest of the time, relatives said, he worked to support his mother and siblings in Honduras.

“Olvin is a good guy, a charismatic person and a peacemaker,” said Danny Orozco, a family friend and his boss at the Arlington restaurant. “He always smiled, and he always loved his family.”

Torres Velasquez met Cabrera Mendez after he arrived in the United States from Honduras, Marina Torres said, and the two quickly became close friends. She said they went out late Tuesday because Torres Velasquez was off work the next day, and they took a ride-share to be responsible.

Now, Leslie Torres said the family is struggling with the unexpected tragedy, and the costs of sending the body to Honduras while also waiting to hear about the investigation.

“If that person had so many tickets, it meant that person was a danger on the streets and sooner or later this was going to happen,” said Leslie Torres, crying. “Why didn’t they act? We ask ourselves, why?”

Cate Brown contributed to this report.