It’s been one year since his cousin was killed in a hit-and-run car accident, and months since he’s received any substantial updates from law enforcement about the search for the suspected driver—but in the open investigation of Sister Jacqueline Walsh’s death, Chuck Walsh has found his own closure.
Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the 59-year-old Catholic nun’s death at the hands of a motorist who fled the scene of the Water Mill fatality. Despite a massive manhunt that included a half dozen law enforcement agencies and spanned the nation, the lone suspect still eludes police custody.
For Mr. Walsh, the search for Carlos Armando Ixpec-Chitay—the 31-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, a former laborer believed to have been driving the 2009 Volkswagen Touareg that struck and killed Sister Walsh on Rose Hill Road in Water Mill—is not going to bring additional satisfaction to himself or his family. The 49-year-old Plainview resident said he is at peace with the fact that what took place the night of July 9, 2012 was an accident, and police have done everything possible to bring the driver to justice.
“At the end of the day, she’s gone, she’s taken away, but she did what she had to do here on the earth,” Mr. Walsh said. “She was able to accomplish what she needed to accomplish. We’re left knowing exactly what she did. That’s closure.”
What began as a peaceful evening of prayer with her sisters in the chapel of the Sisters of Mercy Villa on Rose Hill, followed by a solitary stroll, accompanied only by the music of her mp3 player, ended in tragedy for Sister Walsh at about 8:30 p.m. when a driver struck and killed her.
The car, which was found heavily damaged and tucked away in a residential driveway on nearby Crescent Avenue, belonged to Andrew Zaro, Mr. Ixpec-Chitay’s employer at the time. Police said Mr. Zaro, who owned a large home at the end of Rose Hill Road, was out of town at the time of the accident, and later cooperated with investigators.
Mr. Ixpec-Chitay was identified as the suspected driver soon after the incident. A warrant remains out for Mr. Ixpec-Chitay’s arrest for unlawfully leaving the scene of an accident, a felony—the only charge the current evidence allows. A more serious charge, such as vehicular manslaughter would require evidence of recklessness. If the suspect is caught, more information could come to light to add to the charges—but the current warrant is only for leaving the scene.
Almost immediately, investigators asked the public for help in finding the fugitive—but steadfastly refused to identify the suspect by name or photo. “We know who the driver of the car is, and there are police officers right now on the street trying to locate him,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota said shortly after the fatal accident. “He lives in the community where the incident occurred. We’re looking for the individual, but we know who he is.”
William Wilson Jr., who was Southampton Town Police chief at the time of the incident, said investigators identified the suspect as a flight risk almost immediately. That was one of the reasons the department did not release the identity of Mr. Ixpec-Chitay, neither a name or photo, until 11 days after the accident: to avoid tipping him off.
Mr. Wilson, who retired from the Town Police in December 2012, came under fire for not releasing the identity of Mr. Ixpec-Chitay until after it was believed the suspect had left the state.
Mr. Wilson said other factors contributed to his decision not to release the name, such as suggestions from the U.S. Marshals Service and a concern that an influx of tips would bog down investigators by obligating them to chase down dead-ends. Something else gave him pause: He received what he described as “off-the-wall correspondence,” most of it violent, about what some citizens believed should happen to the driver of the car.
“Ultimately, that decision was mine as chief of police,” he said last week, clearing the air about the highly scrutinized decision. “I’ve second-guessed that a few times, but when you sit down and take a second look at it, I know that we did everything we could to apprehend him.”
Since leaving the department, Mr. Wilson said he has been working in the private sector as a consultant. At 48, Mr. Wilson said he’s still considering coming back to law enforcement and has applied to some departments in Florida.
Although the circumstances of the hit-and-run investigation did not factor into his decision to leave, Mr. Wilson said it will be a something of a black spot on his otherwise “outstanding” 27-year career.
“It frustrates me,” he said. “It’s one of those things, career-wise, that will bother me. But I think every police officer would feel the same.”
Tracking Mr. Ixpec-Chitay’s phone calls and banking actions, Mr. Wilson said investigators missed the fugitive “by minutes” on multiple occasions: 10 minutes too late in Brentwood, 15 minutes too late outside Salt Lake City, Utah. The pursuit sent investigators to Las Vegas, Nevada, and Los Angeles, California, where Mr. Wilson said he believes family helped Mr. Ixpec-Chitay get across the Mexican border, perhaps on his way to his native Guatemala. The last official word he had was that the fugitive was out of the country, likely in his home country, but nothing was certain.
Southampton Town Police Detective Tim Wilson declined to comment on whether the department knows of Mr. Ixpec-Chitay’s current whereabouts, or whether its investigators believe he has left the country. Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa, the lead investigator on the case, has been out of the office for the past week and did not return messages.
Lenny DePaul, the chief inspector and commanding officer of the New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force with the U.S. Marshals Service, the team assisting with the investigating, said he had not been briefed on the case recently. He declined to comment on the status of the investigation or the last known location of Mr. Ixpec-Chitay.
Efforts to track down Mr. Ixpec-Chitay included questioning his younger brother Miguel about where he was hiding. When he did not disclose information to investigators about phone calls he’d exchanged with his brother, Miguel was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of lying to federal officers, for which he served more than four months in jail. Other relatives had been detained in California, seeking information and putting pressure on Mr. Ixpec-Chitay to turn himself in.
Both Southampton Town Police and the Marshals insist the case is active and ongoing. Mr. Wilson said the investigation is “not cold by any means, because we have a named suspect, the defendant in this case—he just hasn’t been apprehended yet.”
Mr. Walsh said police have kept him updated whenever anything new happens and have assured him they still are doing everything they can to track down Mr. Ixpec-Chitay. He’s satisfied with the work they’ve done—but he’s not holding his breath waiting for an arrest.
“The bottom line is that there’s really not much we can do at this point, with him being escaped and most likely being in Guatemala,” he said. “He’s there and pretty much untouchable at this point.”
Mr. Walsh does hope, however, that Mr. Ixpec-Chitay chooses to turn himself in for his own sake, to alleviate guilt from his conscience. This sentiment was echoed by some of Sister Walsh’s closest companions from the Syosset branch of the Sisters of Mercy of America, where she had served since 1981.
Sister Sheila Browne, who lived with Sister Walsh since 1993, said the loss of her longtime friend came as a great surprise, serving as a reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of living life to the fullest—something she said she can’t imagine Mr. Ixpec-Chitay has been able to do this past year.
“It would be good if we could have some closure, not just for us but also for the young man who hit Jackie. He’s living without closure. That’s not an easy life,” Sister Browne said. “It was an accident—it wasn’t something he did intentionally or would do again if he could go back.”
Sister Julia Upton said she believes Mr. Ixpec-Chitay left the scene out of fear, possibly stemming from his past, which included a DWI arrest, or potentially because of what it could mean to his status in this country.
Sister Upton joined the Sisters of Mercy with Sister Walsh in 1981 and maintained a close friendship with her until her death. She said she still feels a connection with her friend.
“My life hasn’t changed a lot without her,” Sister Upton said. “I feel like she’s still with me—in a lot of ways, maybe more available.”