Did police do enough to find man who fled crash scene and died?
BENNINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - At about 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 8, police responded to a rollover crash on Route 279 which connects New York to Vermont. When police arrived, they say they were told Hans Heck, 35, of Bennington, fled the scene on foot. Several days later, the father and war vet was found dead about 200 yards away.
“He is here with us every day,” said Jonathan Bombard, who says Heck was his best friend.
Heck was at Bombard’s Man of Kent Restaurant on the day he died, leaving the establishment at about 4 p.m. It’s unclear where he was for the next two-and-a-half hours leading up to the crash in Bennington. It’s one of the questions Heck’s friends and family still have.
“I expected not to hear from him Saturday morning. The crash occurred on Friday and I heard Sunday morning,” Bombard said.
It wasn’t until Monday that Heck’s body was found just a few hundred yards from the crash.
His older sister Karen Heck says she also learned Hans was missing two days after the crash. She believes more could have been done to find her brother before he froze to death. She says the renewed search that led to his location only happened after she headed to Bennington from her home in Florida.
In a statement sent to WCAX News, Karen Heck said: “If I hadn’t traveled as soon as I found out about the accident, Hans would still be missing. People of Bennington please wake up, this can’t keep happening-- now was my brother, who is next?”
The police investigation reveals a different narrative. They believe Hans Heck was driving under the influence. The autopsy showed cocaine, marijuana and almost double the legal limit of alcohol in his system.
Multiple witnesses told police Heck was driving recklessly on Route 279, tried to pass a car and collided with it, causing his truck to flip three times.
Witnesses at the scene said Heck seemed uninjured but also under the influence. They say he grabbed something from his car and ran into the woods in the below-freezing temperatures.
Fences near highways are put up to make sure that wildlife and traffic don’t interact. Police believe Heck scaled a 10-foot fence and continued running.
When police arrived, they found the truck with Florida license plates unoccupied and there was no blood in the car. But they did find a phone, wallet, ID, a concealed carry permit for Florida and a handgun. Police started to search the area.
“They called out. They could hear someone going through the woods,” Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said.
But with no response, police say they stopped the search because of the cold temperatures, the rugged terrain and because they were unsure whether Heck was armed.
“At that point, Mr. Heck, despite being in the woods, he eluded, he was able to elude the police,” Doucette said. “We believed that we knew the identity of the operator and we also believed, based on the wooded area that he was in, he was eventually going to come out to a road and would be found.”
The chief says crews checked local hospitals and known addresses of Heck. They called the number the truck was associated with, which was Heck’s sister Karen but the phone was disconnected.
They say they also called the ex-girlfriend and mother of Heck’s child but got no answer.
“An effort was made to contact,” Doucette said.
Police say they continued patrols in the area and continued the search again on Sunday.
But those close to Heck say more could have been done.
“My brother had to be dead for almost three days before the police decided to move a finger to find him,” Karen Heck said in a statement.
Doucette calls it an unfortunate situation.
“No, the ball was not dropped here,” the chief said. “Mr. Heck committed multiple criminal offenses, eluded the police and unfortunately died as a result of exposure. But where he was, he could have called out for assistance and it is my opinion that Mr. Heck did not want to be found by law enforcement officers on that night.”
Bombard wouldn’t comment on the police investigation but he says he understands what the community is feeling.
“I can’t rate which was the more frustrating-- Hans dying is the most frustrating point,” he said.
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