SFPD officer's miraculous recovery after hit-and-run left him severely brain-damaged
Doctors had warned the father-to-be might end up as little more than a pulse in human form
By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Even with a severe brain injury and no likely chance of returning to his earlier life as an aspiring lawyer, avid reader and outdoorsman, Elia Lewin-Tankel’s recovery has been miraculous, his friends and colleagues said.
The San Francisco police officer was on bicycle patrol when a fleeing motorist struck him in October 2017, causing a head injury so severe that responding paramedics believed he was dead. And after surgeons at San Francisco General Hospital removed a portion of his skull the size of a human hand, they braced his pregnant wife: The father-to-be might end up as little more than a pulse in human form.
But in the year and a half since the incident, Lewin-Tankel, now 34, has fought hard at a rehab center in Arizona and is up and out of bed. He no longer needs a network of tubes and wires to keep him alive. He started recognizing his wife, an English teacher at Mission High School. He can hold his 1-year-old son.
“To be where he is today is nothing short of a miracle,” said Sgt. Tony Montoya, who was Lewin-Tankel’s supervisor at Southern and Mission stations and is now president of the police union. “The fact that he is still here and has limited mobility is a far cry from what the doctor told us in the ER that day. We were wondering if we needed to plan a funeral.”
As Lewin-Tankel continues his recovery, hoping soon to be moved to a center in California to be closer to home, the fate of the man accused of plowing into him rests in the hands of a San Francisco Superior Court jury.
Attorneys in the case against 51-year-old Willie Flanigan gave their closing arguments Monday in a courtroom packed with Lewin-Tankel’s colleagues on the San Francisco Police Department. More than two dozen officers and supervisors have closely followed the emotionally charged case. Four officers were called to the witness stand over the weeks-long trial, giving tearful testimony of that fateful day.
Flanigan, who was arrested under the name Maurquise Johnson, faces a string of charges, including evading a police officer, causing serious bodily injury; two counts of resisting arrest, causing serious bodily injury; assault with a deadly weapon that’s not a firearm; and hit-and-run, causing serious bodily injury.
Flanigan initially faced a count of attempted murder, but a judge at a preliminary hearing ruled that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to bring the charge.
His lengthy rap sheet dates back to the 1990s. Two of those cases — prior incidents in which Flanigan fled police in a stolen vehicle — were allowed into evidence. In 2007, he fled Antioch police in a stolen vehicle, crashed and ran onto a freeway before being captured. In 2015, he fled police in San Mateo going 100 mph on Highway 101 for 16 miles before running out of gas, prosecutors said. He was sentenced to two years in state prison for the latter crime.
He’s now being held in San Francisco jail without bail and appeared in court Monday wearing a lavender shirt and tie and dark-framed glasses. The most recent charges are the most serious he has faced yet.
The tragedy began to unfold around 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2017, when police attempted to stop Flanigan, who was behind the wheel of a stolen Lexus sport utility vehicle, at a Shell gas station at Franklin and Turk streets.
Assistant District Attorney Asha Jameson played video of the ensuing chase that at times showed Flanigan going the wrong way on one-way streets on the edge of the Tenderloin before he veered into the nearby Opera Plaza parking garage.
As Flanigan exited the garage, again onto Turk Street, he blew through a stop sign and steered around a parked box truck, officials said. At the same time, Lewin-Tankel was riding to the scene, heading the wrong way down Turk, and the two collided as Flanigan drove around the truck.
Police captured Flanigan hours later after he ditched the vehicle and fled on foot, officials said.
“Willie Flanigan made that choice for himself to recklessly flee from police in the middle of the day with human life all around,” Jameson said. “It was reckless. It was unjust, and he knew better.”
Flanigan’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Alex Lilien, focused his closing arguments on the assault with a deadly weapon charge.
“There was a tragedy. It’s undeniable,” he said. “But the moment itself, that’s an accident — that’s not assault.”
Lilien pointed to the testimony of a traffic incident reconstruction expert, who estimated Flanigan was traveling about 12 mph when he collided with Lewin-Tankel. His client, he said, didn’t have enough time to react to the officer coming straight at him.
“If you’re really applying the presumption of innocence and the standard of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to the assault charge, you can’t convict Mr. Flanigan,” Lilien said. “The result was terrible, but that’s not what this was.”
As the jury began deliberating, Lewin-Tankel continues his long road toward improvement. Before the accident, he was in law school and was “one of the most kindhearted, honest and trustworthy members of the Police Department,” Jameson said.
“This never had to happen,” she said. “He will never be the same. He will never be the son or husband he was or the father he could have been.”
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