Still looking for answers in fatal crash

One year later, ques­tions re­main in the death of Of­ficer Bri­an Lorenzo.

  • One year later: Members of the Philadelphia Highway Patrol at their headquarters. Officer Brian Lorenzo, who was killed a year ago July 8 when his motorcycle was hit head-on by a drunk driver, was a member of the elite unit. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Do not enter: Lorenzo was killed by a wrong-way driver on I-95. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • One year later: Members of the Philadelphia Highway Patrol at their headquarters. Officer Brian Lorenzo, who was killed a year ago July 8 when his motorcycle was hit head-on by a drunk driver, was a member of the elite unit. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Bill Lynch knows the ex­act route that Of­ficer Bri­an Lorenzo traveled on the night that a drunk, wrong-way driver struck and killed the Phil­adelphia High­way Patrol cop on north­bound In­ter­state 95 one year ago.

Lynch, a lieu­ten­ant in the High­way unit, and Lorenzo both lived in the Far North­east and of­ten rode their po­lice mo­tor­cycles home to­geth­er after a shift. They would de­part the po­lice sta­tion at G and Erie, turn south on I Street, then east on Ven­ango Street. Ul­ti­mately, they entered the in­ter­state via Ara­mingo Av­en­ue.

But the 48-year-old Lorenzo was trav­el­ing alone on Ju­ly 8, 2012. So was his ac­cused killer, John D. Leck, while driv­ing a 2010 Audi lux­ury sedan with a blood-al­co­hol con­tent al­legedly two-and-a-half times the leg­al lim­it.

One year later, neither Leck, nor pos­sible wit­nesses have re­vealed his activ­it­ies in the two hours be­fore the 3:13 a.m. crash near the Cottman Av­en­ue in­ter­change. But court doc­u­ments in a civil law­suit filed by Lorenzo’s wid­ow, Linda, sug­gest that Leck may have pat­ron­ized either of two North­east after-hours bars early that morn­ing.

“I want to know the full story. Every­body wants to know the full story,” Lynch said dur­ing an in­ter­view with the North­east Times last week. “What was he do­ing down there [in the North­east]? Was he just driv­ing around? You can spec­u­late all you want un­til some­body steps for­ward and says, ‘He was drink­ing here,’ un­til some­body steps for­ward with a con­science.”

Pennsylvania State Po­lice have led the crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tion from the start. They know that Leck, a 47-year-old from Levit­town, bought at least six drinks — four beers and two vod­kas — at a Ben­s­alem Town­ship res­taur­ant hours be­fore the crash. He closed his bar tab at TGI Fri­days on Street Road at 1:16 a.m., re­cords show.

In re­sponse to a civil law­suit filed in Com­mon Pleas Court last sum­mer by Linda Lorenzo against Leck and Fri­days, at­tor­neys for the res­taur­ant suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the court to add two North­east Philly after-hours clubs as de­fend­ants in the case. But Fri­days has yet to sup­ply Lorenzo’s at­tor­neys with evid­ence sup­port­ing ac­tion against the Yik-Yak Club, at 7215 Tor­res­dale Ave., or Joey O’s Private Club, at 8048 Frank­ford Ave.

Man­agers at both clubs did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment for this art­icle. Fri­days, through a pub­lic re­la­tions firm, de­clined to tell the Times its jus­ti­fic­a­tion for identi­fy­ing the after-hours clubs by name.

“Our fo­cus con­tin­ues to be on find­ing where John Leck was drink­ing in the two-hour time frame between when he left our res­taur­ant and when he caused this hor­rif­ic ac­ci­dent,” the com­pany said in a pre­pared state­ment. “We know by his blood al­co­hol level he had to have been drink­ing after he left our res­taur­ant, which is 12 miles from the ac­ci­dent scene. We will provide more in­form­a­tion on our court fil­ings as soon as the lit­ig­a­tion pro­cess al­lows.”

The civil suit, which seeks un­spe­cified dam­ages, ac­cuses Fri­days of serving al­co­hol to a vis­ibly in­tox­ic­ated Leck that night. Fri­days denies that Leck was vis­ibly in­tox­ic­ated at the res­taur­ant. The suit has been largely sus­pen­ded pending the out­come of the crim­in­al case against Leck, ac­cord­ing to at­tor­ney James Binns, who rep­res­ents Linda Lorenzo. 

“We are con­duct­ing dis­cov­ery non­ethe­less,” Binns said. “[But] we haven’t got­ten [the in­form­a­tion] yet.

“I don’t know what evid­ence they have.”

Leck is jailed while await­ing tri­al on third-de­gree murder, hom­icide by vehicle while DUI, in­vol­un­tary man­slaughter and re­lated of­fenses. A tri­al by jury is sched­uled to start on Oct. 21 and ex­pec­ted to last one week.

At­tor­neys rep­res­ent­ing Leck in the crim­in­al and civil cases did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment.

A spokes­man for the Pennsylvania State Po­lice said that the agency is aware of the two after-hours clubs named by Fri­days and has in­vest­ig­ated wheth­er Leck vis­ited either on the night of the crash.

“We are aware there are after-hours bars in the area [of the crash],” said Cpl. Gerry Mc­Shea. “We ob­vi­ously have to look in­to those loc­a­tions.

“No new leads have be­come ap­par­ent to help us identi­fy where he was.”

Non­ethe­less, both after-hours clubs have nu­mer­ous li­quor li­cense vi­ol­a­tions on re­cord with the Pennsylvania Li­quor Con­trol Board and one of them — the Yik Yak Club — may have been shut down for good fol­low­ing a June 22 raid there, ac­cord­ing to Sgt. Dan Steele of the state po­lice’s li­quor en­force­ment branch.

Agents ar­res­ted three club em­ploy­ees early that morn­ing, al­leging that they sold al­co­hol after per­mit­ted hours and op­er­ated a “speak­easy.” All of­fenses are mis­de­mean­ors. Ad­min­is­trat­ive ac­tion against the li­quor li­cense hold­er is ex­pec­ted, Steele said.

Un­der Pennsylvania li­quor laws, most bars must stop serving al­co­hol by 2 a.m. All pat­rons must leave by 2:30 a.m. Both the Yik Yak and Joey O’s hold club li­censes, al­low­ing them to serve pat­rons for an ex­tra hour. But ad­mis­sion to the clubs must be re­stric­ted to re­gistered mem­bers and their guests. Un­der the law, pat­rons must sign a re­gistry upon entry.

The term speak­easy refers to an after-hours bar that op­er­ates out­side the para­met­ers of the li­quor li­cense. Com­monly, pat­rons can enter and buy drinks without a mem­ber­ship.

Des­pite the pub­lic name of the Yik Yak Club, the li­quor li­cense is re­gistered to The United In­de­pend­ent Itali­an Amer­ic­an Club of the City of Phil­adelphia. Prop­erty tax re­cords show that a com­pany, CMJ Prop­er­ties LLC, owns the build­ing. No fur­ther con­tact in­form­a­tion is re­cor­ded for CMJ.

The club has been fined for vi­ol­a­tions 10 times since 2000 and sus­pen­ded four times, Steele said. Most re­cently, the club was sus­pen­ded from May 20 to June 3 and ordered to pay a $4,000 fine res­ult­ing from an Au­gust 2012 raid by li­quor agents. The club sold al­co­hol to non-mem­bers, sold al­co­hol after 3 a.m., al­lowed pat­rons to pos­sess al­co­hol after 3:30 a.m. and failed to evac­u­ate the prop­erty by 3:30 a.m.

With that case pending, agents raided the club again in Janu­ary and cited it for the same vi­ol­a­tions as well as gambling on the premises. The Li­quor Con­trol Board has yet to is­sue a fi­nal judg­ment on that case.

On June 29, the ad­min­is­trat­or of the club’s Face­book page pos­ted the in­quiry, “Need some in­put on what the club will be in 3-6 months. Go.”

Salty re­sponses in­cluded a meth­adone clin­ic, a flo­p­h­ouse for home­less, a marijuana dis­pens­ary and a va­cant build­ing. One poster re­com­men­ded a tor­ture cham­ber for state po­lice and li­quor en­force­ment agents.

Not­with­stand­ing the pending vi­ol­a­tions, the club’s li­quor li­cense is due to ex­pire on Oct. 31. Most li­cense hold­ers have to ap­ply for re­new­als every two years, Steele said.

The li­cense for Joey O’s is is­sued to the Vag­a­bond Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation. The club formerly op­er­ated un­der the “Vag­a­bond” name. Ac­cord­ing to Steele, the club has a much short­er list of vi­ol­a­tions. The LCB fined the club in 1997, fined and sus­pen­ded it in Oc­to­ber 2011 and sus­pen­ded it in Ju­ly 2012. Steele was un­able to ac­cess de­tails from the case file.  

Lynch and his col­leagues in the High­way Patrol have noth­ing to do with li­quor li­cense en­force­ment and they’re un­der no il­lu­sion that one of­ficer’s death will change the be­ha­vi­or pat­terns of drunk drivers, al­though the of­ficers hope the tragedy of their col­league’s death will res­on­ate with mo­tor­ists.

As for Leck, he has main­tained that he doesn’t re­mem­ber where he went after TGI Fri­days that night, ac­cord­ing to evid­ence in the crim­in­al case, leav­ing Lorenzo’s fam­ily and col­leagues with many un­answered ques­tions. ••

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