The History of Joliet – Chapter 37

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The red car crashed into the seven people who were crossing the street. But the driver just kept going.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

“It may seem unfortunate to this man that he is the first to be convicted of such a crime in Will County. …  Automobile drivers must realize they do not have exclusive right or control over the highway …”

— Judge Frederick HILL, Will County Circuit Court, Feb. 26, 1925.

And 32-year-old Victor RODIGHIERO became the first one. The first driver of a car in Joliet to kill a pedestrian. The first to be convicted of this crime.

It all started on the warm Sunday evening of Sept. 28, 1924. Seven residents who lived on Broadway in Joliet were taking a walk and enjoying the early fall colors in the changing leaves.

They were walking along a path on the west side of the street as they headed for a dance just a few blocks away. The evening grew dark around them because there were no street lights.

The seven people included two children and five adults. Mary FRANCISCKOVICH, a young mother of six, was in front, followed by her neighbor Margaret AHLIN. Jennie PAVISCH, 4, was in the middle of the bunch. Others included the little girl’s brother, parents and Mary’s husband.

Peter CALLAGHAN was driving south along Broadway. He was moving slowly because he knew residents often walked in the street.

Suddenly, a big red touring car shot around him. The car was speeding, at least 35 mph, CALLAGHAN said.

Shortly after passing, the red car crashed into the seven people who were crossing the street. But the driver just kept going.

CALLAGHAN chased the fleeing vehicle, pulled up beside the red touring car and told the driver there had been an accident. The man nodded his head and said he would go back to the accident scene. He turned around and headed back.

But he didn’t stop. He just drove away from the accident at a high rate of speed.

As Jennie was carried into a nearby house, she died in her father’s arms. Mary, the mother of six, died a half-hour later in the hospital. AHLIN‘s leg had been broken in two places. The other four had escaped injury.

But who was that hit-and-run driver?

“Sooner or later, we’ll find him,” promised the sheriff, who had already started a campaign to post speed limits in residential areas.

The sheriff vowed to have his deputies stationed in various residential spots to stop speeding cars. These drivers would be fined $5, he said.

On the following Monday afternoon, the sheriff received a tip about a red car with a wrecked right front fender parked in a Lockport garage. Deputy Stanley KOZLOWSKI investigated the garage, and found the car and spotted blood on the wrecked fender. The red car also had a broken headlight.

He arrested RODIGHIERO, who denied hitting anyone. He said his fender was damaged when he had hit a utility pole.

But an hour after he was locked in the county jail, RODIGHIERO confessed. He said he had driven back to the scene, but became frightened because a mob of people had gathered there. He heard men cursing, and he feared they would beat him if he got out.

RODIGHIERO said he didn’t know he had hit people. He thought a stick or stone had hit his fender. He stuck with this same story right through the trial.

But State’s Attorney KJALMAR, the prosecutor, pointed out the car had hit more than 300 pounds of dead weight. He asked how any driver could believe that was a stick or stone.

The jury believed the prosecutor.

Less than an hour was needed by the jury to find RODIGHIERO guilty of manslaughter.

“There is no excuse for this killing,” the judge said. “The story told by the defendant was very improbable. It is inconceivable that a man could not see seven people walking on or off the highway …

“I can understand how a driver might be blinded by the lights of an approaching automobile or streetcar and not see anyone in the road. But by the defendant’s own testimony, there was nothing approaching him at the time of the accident.”

When the judge brought down his gavel, he sentenced RODIGHIERO to prison for one-year-to-life. With good behavior, he was eligible for parole in 11 months, the newspaper reported.

Published December 08, 2001