MANHATTAN — A day after an unlicensed teen driver hit and killed a 4-year-old girl and critically injured her grandmother while fleeing police who had pulled him over for a routine traffic stop, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly defended the actions of the officers who gave chase.
“In pursuit situations, you have to make some judgment calls, whether or not it's wise to continue the pursuit,” Kelly said during a Wednesday morning press conference, a day after little Ariel Russo and Katia Gutierrez, 58, were hit. “At this juncture, at this time, I see the actions of the police officers as being reasonable.”
Police officers pulled Franklin Reyes, 17, of Chelsea, over at 89th Street and Amsterdam Avenue shortly before 8:20 a.m. Tuesday after he made an improper left turn in his 2010 black Nissan Frontier SUV, they said. Reyes initially stopped in the middle of the street but sped off as officers approached his car on foot. 23 seconds later, he made a sharp left turn on 97th Street, lost control, jumped the curb, and pinned Ariel and Gutierrez to the side of the building, police said.
The NYPD is investigating the pursuit, he added.
Reyes — a junior at the St. Agnes Boys High School on the Upper West Side — told police he panicked during a routine traffic stop en route to his last day of classes because he was driving with only a learner's permit and was supposed to have an adult in the vehicle.
The SUV was a gift from Reyes' mother, law enforcement sources said.
Ariel was declared dead at the hospital and Gutierrez was in stable condition at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Wednesday afternoon.
Reyes was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital for breathing problems and was arraigned late Wednesday on charges of second degree manslaughter and unlawfully fleeing a police officer, according to the criminal complaint.
A witness said his car appeared to be driving between 50 to 60 miles per hour before turning left onto West 97th Street before the crash, the complaint stated.
"For some reason or other they put those lights on and they scared the wits out of him and he took off — when that happens and you’ve never had that experience he just followed an impulse," said Schmukler Thursday.
Schmukler said he did not know where Reyes was being held and that bail had not been set and his client had not entered a plea.
When bail was set, Schmukler said he expected there to be "plenty of support," for Reyes.
"This poor kid will have to live for the rest of his life knowing that innocent people died withhis actions. It’s a tragedy all the way around," said Schmukler.
Law enforcement sources said Reyes likely would have only gotten a reprimand from the cops who stopped him, or they might have made him called his mother to come get the car.
"I guess he did not want to tell his mother," the source added. "Now he has a whole lot more trouble and a child's dead."
At Tuesday's press conference, Kelly described young people driving without licenses as an age-old problem.
“Young people driving with just learners' permits is not a new problem,” he said. “I don't know of any new solutions to come up with.''
Ariel and her grandmother were one block away from the Holy Name School, where she was enrolled in a Pre-k program.
On Wednesday morning, students from the school filed into the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus for a 9:30 a.m. memorial service in her honor, struggling to understand her loss.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Diana Rivera, 40, a volunteer at the school. “The little ones don’t know what happened but they know someone is missing. They ask questions like ‘where is she?’ and ‘when is she coming back?’ All we can say is she is with the angels.”
Students in uniform and grieving adults filled the seats of the church. The school choir, dressed in golden robes, sang a few songs for Ariel.
Aida Fonseca, a teacher’s aid at Holy Name, remembered Ariel as a cheerful girl who had many friends. The little girl was an energetic student who enjoyed to dance, paint and read, she said.
“She was always smiling and carried her little doll everywhere she went,” Fonseca said.
Ariel’s family did not attend the service.
“They are devastated,” Ariel’s grandfather, Paolo Russo, 71, said of the family Tuesday. “This was a tragedy, and we are all very sad. We’re mourning her loss.”
Additional reporting by Aidan Gardiner, Trevor Kapp and Emily Frost.