NEW YORK – A van traveled for nearly an hour over busy New York City roads before its driver discovered the horrific cargo it had dragged almost 20 miles: the partially scraped-away body of a man who was plowed over by an SUV just before he got caught under the van.
Police said the gruesome episode was accidental and that they have no plans to charge the drivers at this time.
But that did not diminish the shock of seeing a dead man hooked under a van that had just traversed some of the busiest roads in the city. Police said the driver, Manuel Lituma Sanchez, had no idea he hit the victim until the end of his trip, when a bystander told him something was dragging under his van.
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Investigators were working to identify the body, which was found largely intact but horribly battered. The man's heels were shorn off. His clothes and several layers of skin on his legs and buttocks were worn off. The back of his head was worn through to the scalp.
A business card, Western Union receipt and a broken iPhone were found in the man's pockets, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.
The man was first hit around 6:15 a.m. while apparently crossing against a stop light in the Corona section of Queens by the driver of a black Ford Expedition, Gustavo Acosta, who immediately called 911. When police arrived, the victim was gone and no damage was found to the SUV.
Lituma Sanchez, who was about two vehicles behind, said he had noticed cars swerving but didn't see the initial accident and assumed the drivers were simply avoiding a pothole.
He drove over the victim, who was facing up, and the man's chest was hooked by a steel plate under the van known as the skid plate, used to protect the transmission and undercarriage.
"I didn't feel anything, and I didn't hear anything," Lituma Sanchez told reporters outside his Queens home. "I didn't know what happened."
It's not clear whether the victim was alive at that point.
"The van comes and rides right over the body and as it goes by there's no body there," Browne said. "The body was basically fish-hooked by the plate."
Lituma Sanchez stopped shortly after the accident to check his car but noticed nothing and went on his way. The vehicle has a low ridge around the wheels for stepping inside, making it difficult to see under the van.
Lituma Sanchez drove on the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck Expressway and the Belt Parkway, winding from Queens to Brooklyn and ending up in Brighton Beach, where he works as a delivery man, Browne said. On the residential streets at a slower speed, he suspected something was wrong with his engine, and he stopped, opened the hood and checked the oil. But he did not look under the car.
He got back in and drove a few more blocks before a pedestrian flagged him to say something was dragging under his 1998 Chevrolet van. Lituma Sanchez got out of his car again, looked underneath, discovered the body and called 911 from his cell phone.
"You can't imagine the shock I felt" on seeing the corpse, he told reporters. "I'm just so nervous and very sad."
Police jacked up the vehicle and pulled the body from under the van. The corpse, found face up with the shirt and pants shredded, was covered with a white sheet as officers investigated and talked to the shellshocked, exhausted driver in a police car. The victim's bruised and bloody legs could be seen protruding from the sheet in front of the van.
An autopsy was planned for Thursday. Both drivers have clean records, police said.
Police retraced the van's route and recovered a blue jacket believed to have belonged to the victim, who was described as Hispanic, in his 20s or 30s and between 5 feet 2 and 5 feet 4 inches tall.
Police had initially believed it was a 17-mile journey, but did a closer examination of the route realized it was 19.8 miles instead.