Modesto — On this Christmas Day, which also happens to be Christopher Hammer's 33rd birthday, he wishes for two things.
He'd like to know how he ended up in a heap in the slow lane of Highway 99 in central Modesto more than a mile from where he believes he was first hit by a car during a downpour the evening of Dec. 1.
And he'd like to know how the driver who hit him and left him for dead can live with himself or herself.
"What were they thinking?" he wondered, lying in a bed at Doctors Medical Center more than a week after the incident. "Why couldn't they stop? They had their lights on. They had to know they'd hit a human being."
In fact, Hammer believes he rode a great distance on the hood of the car, fell off at some point and was dragged by the same vehicle or another.
A broken arm and elbow. Scraping and tire marks on his torso and the lower half of his body, one witness described.
"Back and butt," Hammer said.
Part of his scalp is gone, and he'll need skin grafts to repair the damage. His clothing was shredded, but amazingly, his cell phone survived intact.
Hammer is disabled and completed only junior high school. He lives with his mother, sister and niece in a small house near Mellis Park in west Modesto. He's quick to tell you he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol.
He recalls little from that night. Hammer accompanied his family to play bingo at a parlor on Mitchell Road near Yosemite Boulevard. He played a few games, then went outside during the break at 7:15 p.m. When the break ended, his mom and sister returned to play. He didn't, nor did he say anything to them about his plans for the rest of the evening.
"We thought he was probably just sitting out there on a bench," sister Sherry Marquez said.
Hammer had other ideas.
"I just decided to walk all the way home," Hammer said. "I don't know why I did that."
Because he walks everywhere he goes, the 3.35-mile trek from the bingo parlor to his home presented no challenge.
"You could put me in a walk-a-thon," he said from his hospital bed. "I walk a lot. I walk fast."
He's also a creature of habit. Whenever he walks east of the freeway, his return trip always takes him to I Street, across Sixth Street to the bridge over 99, and then home. He's sure that's the route he took that night, and said it would have taken him about an hour to get home from the bingo parlor.
The problem is, he remembers virtually nothing that happened after he left the parlor that night.
Feared he was dead
Three-plus hours later, about 10:40 p.m., Debra Oliver of Modesto was driving her pickup north on the freeway. What started as a light rain earlier had suddenly turned into a downpour, and traffic was heavy. As she went beneath the Kansas Avenue overpass, she saw something in the far right lane.
"I didn't know what it was," she said. "I swerved around it and I realized it was a human body."
She quickly pulled off the road and went running back toward the spot.
"Honestly, I thought he was deceased until I got up to him," Oliver said. But he was able to tell her his name "Christopher" and mumbled something about playing bingo.
Oliver knew Hammer likely would be hit again and killed if he remained in the lane. He tried to roll over on his own, but his injuries were too great. So she dragged him a few feet onto the shoulder.
Around that time, two young men told her they had called 911.
"What did they tell you?" she asked.
" 'They told us to get out of there,' " she said one replied. "When I told the CHP officer that, he was suspicious (about them). He said (the dispatcher) would never tell them that."
Officer Eric Parsons of the California Highway Patrol said it's obvious Hammer was struck by a car and that it was a hit-and-run.
Hammer believes the car struck him as he crossed Sixth Street near The Salvation Army facility and that he clung to the hood of the car as it entered 99 on the northbound onramp just north of Sixth. A drunken driver, perhaps? Whatever, the person didn't stop, didn't help, didn't care.
Hammer believes the driver tried to fling him off the car and that he had been dragged by that vehicle or another on his way up 99. His injuries and shredded clothing would lend some credence to his theory.
Parsons, though, said the evidence suggests Hammer somehow wandered close or onto the freeway when he was hit, even though that particular spot would have taken him nearly two miles out of his way compared with his normal route home.
"According to the report, they found some of his jacket lining, a piece of bread fresh and one of his shoes on the freeway," Parsons said. "When you get hit by a car, it can knock you out of your shoes. It's not going to just fall off later. They found it up on the freeway in the third lane."
The items, CHP investigator Blake Mitchell said, were about 100 feet south of the spot where Hammer was found on the roadway by those who stopped, suggesting he was dragged that distance after being hit.
No witness Mitchell interviewed saw Hammer being struck by a vehicle. They only saw him lying in the road.
"Nobody has given us any evidence to track down something," Parsons said.
He won't absolutely rule out the possibility Hammer was first hit at Sixth Street, rode the hood and later was dragged to end up a mile north past Kansas Avenue.
"It would be unlikely," he said. "Can we completely and categorically say it didn't happen that way? No."
We may never know
More likely, Parsons said, is that Hammer became disoriented in the dark of night and in the heavy downpour, went down onto the freeway and was hit trying to cross it.
One theory: Rather than enter the freeway by descending the steeper onramp near Sixth and I, he went north on Sixth and entered 99 on the lesser-graded onramp north of L Street. He could have walked along the freeway a half-mile or so to the place where they found him just past the Kansas Avenue overpass. By all accounts, it was raining pretty hard at the time.
They and we may never know how it really transpired unless someone who saw him walking or saw him being hit that night contacts the CHP.
But they all agree Hammer and his family, the CHP and those who stopped to help Hammer at the scene that to hit a pedestrian and then drive off, leaving him for dead in the rain, is totally pathetic and criminal.
One positive, said Linda Franklin, Hammer's mother, is that so many people stopped to help in the downpour that night.
The more obvious plus is that Christopher is alive to see his 33rd Merry Christmas and happy birthday.
And what does Mom wish for the person who hit and ran over her son?
"I try to forgive," Franklin said. "But I don't know how you can go off and leave someone there like that. I hope in their heart, they feel it."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.