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Feb 4, 2009 9:12 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Arrest made in Flanders fatal hit-and-run

Feb 4, 2009 9:12 AM

A man from Guatemala has been charged with hitting and killing a 71-year-old woman from Queens with his car last November as she attempted to cross a dark stretch of Flanders Road in Flanders, then fleeing the scene.

Following a two-month-long investigation, Southampton Town Police last Thursday, January 29, arrested 27-year-old Sergio Chocon-Hernandez, who authorities say has been living in the country illegally, after an unidentified person alerted detectives earlier in the week that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez had confessed to that individual that he had committed the crime.

Mr. Chocon-Hernandez, who turned himself in at around 9 a.m. last Thursday at police headquarters in Hampton Bays, was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a fatal motor vehicle accident, a felony, and unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a violation, according to authorities.

“We worked on [this investigation] intensively and it came to a successful conclusion,” said Southampton Town Detective Sergeant Randy Hintze, who headed the investigation.

At his arraignment before Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein last Thursday afternoon, Mr. Chocon-Hernandez pled not guilty to both charges.

Police said that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez, who now lives on Priscilla Avenue in Flanders, was driving a 1998 Nissan northbound on Flanders Road, near the intersection of Cypress Avenue, at around 5:20 p.m. on November 22, 2008, when he struck and killed Stella Tascon of Jackson Heights, Queens. Ms. Tascon, who was visiting a friend in the area, had left her friend’s home to take a walk earlier that afternoon. Police believe that she was crossing the street when she was struck by Mr. Chocon-Hernandez, who then fled the scene.

At his client’s arraignment, Southampton-based attorney Colin Astarita requested that bail be set at $2,000, noting that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez had voluntarily turned himself in earlier that morning.

“He has been willing and wanting to stand because he knows it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Astarita said, stressing that his client always intended to turn himself in. “He could have fled the jurisdiction in December.”

But Suffolk County assistant district attorney Joshua Shapiro requested that bail be set at $100,000, explaining that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez was in the country illegally­—his visa had expired in 2007—and was a flight risk. Justice Kooperstein agreed with the prosecution, noting that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez had waited more than two months before turning himself in.

“There was an accident November 22,” she said, before setting bail at $100,000. “It is now January 29.”

Mr. Chocon-Hernandez failed to post bail and is currently being held at Suffolk County Jail in Riverside. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison. Mr. Astarita explained that because Mr. Chocon-Hernandez is in the country illegally, he will be deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement back to Guatemala after serving his sentence.

It is not clear if the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office will seek an elevated charge. A spokesperson for that office could not be reached for comment.

Wearing a red hooded zip-up sweatshirt and blue jeans, and with his hands handcuffed behind his back, Mr. Chocon-Hernandez smiled nervously as he entered the courtroom. A translator stood by his side and read the charges to him in Spanish. Ms. Tascon’s daughter, Carolina Arbelaez of Pennsylvania, sat teary eyed in the back row of the courtroom with other family members as the charges were read.

“It is nice to see that he is in custody,” Ms. Arbelaez said while standing outside the courthouse following Thursday’s arraignment. “Southampton [Town Police] has been really great.”

On Friday, Mr. Astarita explained that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez did not immediately turn himself in, even though he was aware that he had struck a person with his car, because he was scared that he would be deported. Mr. Astarita said his client, who works in the service industry and has a wife and child living in Guatemala, parked his car a few miles away from the accident scene and then abandoned it.

Police found the vehicle, which had sustained front-end damage, the same day as the accident and later learned that the car was registered to Mr. Chocon-Hernandez. The vehicle was immediately impounded and is now being stored at police headquarters. Det. Sgt. Hintze noted that investigators with the Suffolk County Police crime laboratory examined the vehicle and collected evidence.

According to Mr. Astarita, detectives went to his client’s home on the same day of the accident, but Mr. Chocon-Hernandez was not there. Around the same time, he said that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez called his office and Mr. Astarita said he advised his client not to surrender to police until he could work out an agreement with authorities.

Det. Sgt. Hintze explained on Tuesday that after initially indicating that his client would surrender to police less than 24 hours after the fatal accident, Mr. Astarita later stated that Mr. Chocon-Hernandez was no longer willing to confess to the crime.

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