Anita Crawford, 50, second from left, Kirsten Crawford, 20, center, and Kevin Crawford, 52, right, were killed in a Des Plaines crash Feb. 16, 2017. Hailee Crawford, left, and Christian Crawford, lower right, were not in the crash. (Family photo)
Piotr Rog‘s troubles with the law began almost as soon as he was old enough to drive. His first speeding ticket — driving 15 to 20 mph over the limit in an Audi — came a week after he celebrated his 16th birthday and had been handed his driver’s license.
At least eight other tickets for speeding and other offenses would follow in the next five years, until Rog’s license was suspended for a fourth time last October, after authorities said he was caught drinking underage. Rog managed to sidestep more serious consequences, sometimes by a matter of days, that would have triggered the automatic revocation of his license.
His license was reinstated, for the last time, on Jan. 19.
Four weeks later, the 21-year-old Rog drove his Mercedes at a speed that police say may have exceeded 100 mph down Northwest Highway in Des Plaines before causing a violent collision with a car carrying three members of an Arlington Heights family, killing himself and all of them.
While authorities say the lone survivor of the crash, Rog’s passenger, remains in a medically-induced coma, the victims’ family and some lawmakers are left questioning whether the legal system did its job when Rog racked up multiple speeding tickets and license suspensions in the five years he was legally driving.
“We’ve got enough laws, but no one is paying attention to them,” said Erwin Schmidt, 77, the father of Anita Crawford, who was killed in the crash.
Des Plaines police say Rog was at fault in the accident that killed 50-year-old Anita Crawford; her husband, Kevin Crawford, 52, and their eldest daughter, Kirsten Crawford, 20. Veteran authorities at the scene described the Crawfords’ car as looking like a ball of tin foil.
Schmidt and his wife, Ursel, 73, recently were named guardians of the Crawfords’ two other children, Christian, 9, and Hailee, 15.
State officials say there is a very specific path for dealing with drivers like Rog who repeatedly speed. David Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois Secretary of State‘s office, said the penalties for driving violations are determined by state laws and county traffic courts, where — some attorneys and experts say — judges often are inundated with heavy caseloads.
“There’s nothing arbitrary about the process for the Secretary of State’s office, because it has to follow the law,” Druker said. “We rely on the courts to report the driver’s record to us, but if someone gets a ticket thrown out and it’s an acquittal, we don’t get it.”
Des Plaines police said Rog was driving his Mercedes at a “high rate of speed” in the 100 block of East Northwest Highway about 8:55 p.m. on Feb. 16, when he slammed into a Chevrolet Impala driven by Kevin Crawford, who was turning into the local YMCA parking lot with his wife and eldest daughter in the car. They had been traveling the 1.5 miles from their Arlington Heights home for the two women to play in an indoor soccer game.
Police said Rog likely was driving as much as twice the posted 40 mph speed limit, and could have been going more than 100 mph. Toxicology results have yet to determine whether alcohol or drugs played a role in the crash, officials said.
But Rog’s history of speeding began long before the car crash that took his life.
His first ticket came in 2011, and as with many of the speeding tickets he would eventually accumulate over the next five years, he received supervision after paying a fine and agreeing to attend traffic safety school, Cook County court records show.
While Rog’s license was suspended three times between April 2013 and October 2015 for moving violations, it also was suspended for a fourth time in October 2016 in connection with underage drinking at the Key Lime Cove water park in suburban Gurnee, officials said. Rog’s license was reinstated on Jan. 19, Druker said, a month before the fatal crash.
Court records also reveal that one of the suspensions happened after Rog failed to complete traffic safety school in connection with a March 2014 speeding ticket issued by Schiller Park police, but he eventually completed the class requirements.
Rog’s journey through the Cook County Traffic Court system was accompanied by a defense attorney only once, in September 2015, when he appeared at the Skokie District 2 Courthouse at a hearing for going 21 to 25 mph over the speed limit in Glenview.
The attorney who represented Rog at the traffic court hearing did not respond to requests for comment, and a man who answered a phone listed to one of Rog’s relatives also declined to comment.
But court records show that Rog entered a guilty plea for the 2015 violation, paid a $259 fine and soon was back behind the wheel of his Mercedes, the car involved in the fatal crash.
Records show he had a valid driver’s license at the time of the accident, Druker said.
The driver of the other car, Kevin Crawford, had been ticketed twice for speeding and received a handful of other traffic violations in the years since 1991, but Druker said Crawford had a “clean record,” meaning his license had never been suspended or revoked.
Officials said there were a multitude of reasons Rog managed to avoid harsher penalties, despite his propensity for speeding.
Even with tougher sanctions for young drivers mandated through the state’s Graduated Driver License program, which begins with the permitting phase at age 15 through the age of 20, Druker said it would typically take four moving violations within 24 months to revoke a driver’s license.
In Rog’s case, Druker said it appeared in some instances, he was “skirting by, within days” of that time frame.
Brenda Glahn, assistant general counsel for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, said traffic violations are assigned “points” based upon the severity of the incident.
“We look at the violations themselves and assign a number of points. The higher the points means a longer suspension,” Glahn said, adding that in recent years, the Secretary of State’s office has limited the number of court supervisions to two within a 12-month period.
License revocation is rare, Glahn said, but it is the penalty for egregious violations, such as a driver being convicted of street racing, receiving a fourth DUI or four moving violations in 24 months.
But some state lawmakers and attorneys said the decisions made by traffic court judges determine the destiny of drivers like Rog, who in some years was ticketed every few months for speeding but allowed to remain behind the wheel.
“Judges have a fair amount of discretion, and you would hope that a judge who sees that someone has had multiple speeding tickets would not be lenient,” said State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights.
Harris recently proposed legislation in Springfield that could make it a felony if drivers fail to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in fatal accidents, a measure inspired by a crash that led to the death of a Mount Prospect woman last year who was struck by an SUV while she was riding her bike in a crosswalk.
“The frustration is, we can always toughen the laws for everyone, but then you still face the situation of the person who gets their license revoked and drives anyway,” Harris added.
Victor Beecher, director of program development and the police training division at the Northwestern Center for Public Safety, said it doesn’t always make sense to change the law based on one tragedy.
“It doesn’t mean the system is broken when we’re talking about one individual who used very poor judgment and behavior by driving 100 mph and killing people and himself,” Beecher said. “There’s no perfect system and no guarantee that any law will prohibit a person from using bad judgment. His license was suspended multiple times, and his behavior was not affected. But that does not mean a different system would have more of an impact.”
One Chicago-based criminal defense attorney, who did not represent Rog but defends young drivers facing DUI charges and other traffic violations, said a visit to any county traffic court reveals that most judges are burdened by heavy caseloads.
“When you see these traffic courts are jam-packed, that might be an issue,” said attorney Bassam Abdallah. “But when you look at misdemeanor traffic violations, you see a lot of people who are driving on suspended licenses. Our lives are so dependent on the automobile, some people are still going to drive no matter what.”
Multiple judges in the Chicago area, including some who presided over Rog’s past court hearings, declined to comment, citing an Illinois Supreme Court rule prohibiting judges from making public comments about pending or impending court proceedings.
But Abdallah said parents can try to combat dangerous driving habits by putting stricter rules in place. They can take away car keys following a traffic violation and prohibit teens from driving “flashy” cars that could inflate a young driver’s ego, he said.
But when it comes to young drivers with a pattern of speeding, Abdallah said, even the best efforts may prove ineffective.
“When you’re a teenager, you have a feeling of immortality, and you don’t think anything can happen to you,” Abdallah said.
According to Jane Terry, director of government affairs at the National Safety Council, speeding accounts for about a third of all car-crash deaths, with more than half of teens killed in crashes driving either over the speed limit or too fast for conditions.
“Younger drivers and speed go hand-in-hand,” Terry said in an email. “Unfortunately, teens tend to speed more often than more experienced drivers, and the consequences are more severe.”
Rog’s Facebook account, the name of which recently was updated to “Remembering Piotr K. Rog,” shows an athletic-looking young man seemingly passionate about cars and motorcycles. In April 2015, he posted, “Smoke tyres, not drugs.”
Rog, who attended Maine West High School and Oakton Community College, and who described himself on Facebook as self-employed, also is pictured working out at a gym and standing alongside a snowboard in Breckenridge, Colo.
Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner said investigators still are hoping to interview Rog’s passenger, the only survivor of the Feb. 16 crash. But authorities say he remains in critical condition at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where he has been placed in a medically-induced coma.
“We’ve been unable to talk to the survivor, but we’re hoping it might clear up a few things,” said Kushner, who has described the deadly crash as the worst he has seen in 40 years. “We’re investigating all tips, and the investigation is still ongoing.”
Kushner said it likely will take weeks or months until authorities receive the findings from the toxicology report and data from the “black box” on Rog’s Mercedes, which, if intact, could reveal the speed he was traveling at the time of the crash.
Erwin Schmidt, Anita Crawford’s father, said he and his wife begin each morning by preparing their young grandson’s breakfast and driving the fourth-grader to Windsor Elementary school in Arlington Heights.
“We’ve got the paperwork signed for the children to come live in our home, and now we’re getting their house cleaned up before we put it up for sale,” Schmidt said. “It’s been unbelievable how very, very generous people have been. But in the long run, they can only do so much, and we have to handle this on our own.”
It’s unclear whether harsher penalties would have kept Rog off the road. At the Secretary of State’s office, Druker said court measures can only do so much.
“If someone physically knows how to drive, sadly, in some cases, they really don’t care if they have a valid license or not; they’re going to drive,” he said.