Hit and run suspect faces judge after more than a decade at large

By Northeast News staff

An undocumented man who faced a municipal court judge last week in connection to a fatal 2007 hit-and-run accident was only a teenager when prosecutors allege that he dragged 44-year-old Jerry Dean Smith to his death.

Cesar Saenz, 28, faces charges of Involuntary Manslaughter in the 1st Degree and Leaving the Scene of a Motor Vehicle Accident.

Court documents show that Kansas City, Missouri Police officers responded to the area of 9th street and Benton Blvd. on the evening of October 27, 2007, on the report of an injury accident. While en route to the accident an officer traveling west on 9th Street near Bales Ave. witnessed what he believed to be grey Ford Taurus sedan traveling east in the westbound lanes at a high rate of speed. That vehicle, which prosecutors allege was driven by then 17-year-old Cesar A. Saenz, went through the intersection of 9th and Benton. The vehicle struck Smith, who was directing traffic from the previous accident. Smith, a lifelong Northeast resident, suffered fatal injuries in the crash and left behind two children.

Roughly three days later, police received a tip from the Crime Stoppers hotline that the vehicle involved in the accident belonged to a Hispanic male known as “Saesa,” and that the vehicle belonged to his mother who lived in Kansas City, Kansas. Officers responded to the home and interviewed witnesses who identified Saesa as Cesar Saenz, and indicated that on the night of the accident Saenz arrived at the residence in his mother’s vehicle. Saenz told the witnesses he had been involved in a fight and that people had hit his mother’s vehicle with bats. Saenz also indicated that he had “struck a diesel truck,” causing the damage. The vehicle was parked behind the residence in Kansas City, KS.

Another Crime Stoppers report indicated that Saenz was working under an alias in the caves near I-435 and M-210. Officers responded to the cave on October 31, 2007 and took a confrontational Saenz into custody. A single key was located in his pocket at the time of his arrest.

Gang Unit detectives received a tip two days later as to the whereabouts of the suspect vehicle, which Saenz’s mother had sold after the accident. Detectives responded and recovered the vehicle and windshield for evidence. Damage to the vehicle was consistent with that of striking a pedestrian. The vehicle’s windshield also contained fabric fragments that were consistent with the pattern on the victim’s shirt on the night of the accident. The key recovered from Saenz’s pocket at the time of his arrest opened the doors and was able to start the ignition of the vehicle.

Despite the evidence, authorities were unable to definitively tie Saenz to the vehicle on the night of the hit-and-run until February of 2009, when a Crime Stoppers tip led KCPD detectives to a woman identified as Saenz’s girlfriend at the time of the fatal incident. The woman acknowledged that she was riding in the vehicle with Saenz on October 27, 2007, and indicated that a pit bull inside the vehicle distracted Saenz as he was driving. They heard a fire truck behind them – with lights and siren activated – and sped up to get out of the way. As Saenz did this, he struck Smith in the middle of the intersection at 9th and Benton. According to the woman, Saenz indicated he was afraid of being deported back to Mexico due to his illegal status, and declined to stop the vehicle.

Court documents reveal that a warrant for Saenz’s arrest was filed on March 31, 2009, but the case was filed under seal. Typically, filing a warrant under seal is an indication that prosecutors believe the suspect is still in their jurisdiction; authorities don’t want the suspect to be made aware of the warrant and go into hiding. By May 7, 2009, however, the warrant was unsealed. That action can be an indication that authorities believe a suspect has fled the area. By unsealing the warrant, jurisdictions from around the country can be alerted about the warrant.

Saenz nevertheless managed to evade authorities until June 22, 2018, when he was finally served with the warrant. Saenz appeared in Jackson County court on August 30, 2018, and is set to have an arraignment hearing on Monday, September 17 at 10 a.m. At this point, it remains unclear exactly how Saenz was apprehended.

Between the night of the fateful incident and the moment when the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office filed charges in the case this summer, Smith’s sister Lee Ann (Smith) Benedetto remained vigilant in the pursuit of justice. Benedetto strategically placed a wanted poster displaying an image of Saenz on the back window of her vehicle, where it has remained ever since the tragic incident occurred.

“I have replaced it about four times,” Benedetto said. “Eventually it would become faded or cracked, and I would take it down and put a fresh one up.”

Saenz is currently being held in the Jackson County Jail. He has been charged with First Degree Involuntary Manslaughter and Leaving the Scene of an Accident.

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