Charges filed: Man accused in crash that severely injured woman, her grandchildren

MILWAUKEE -- The driver accused of fleeing the scene of the crash after hitting a grandmother and her two grandchildren had his initial appearance in Milwaukee County court on Friday, May 9.

Peter Helfenstein, 42, appeared in court via teleconference Friday morning. He is charged with one count of hit-and-run, causing great bodily harm, following the Sunday, May 3 crash near 35th Street and Montana Street.

According to the criminal complaint, one victim –- a 70-year-old woman –- has had multiple surgeries to repair a broken lower leg and foot since the crash. A 7-year-old girl suffered a severe eye injury to her cornea that left her temporarily blind -- and a 4-year-old girl suffered an injury to the inside of her mouth.

An investigation found the striking vehicle in the crash contained a handicap sticker belonging to a friend who Helfenstein had dropped off earlier in the day. Police went to the address listed on the sticker and spoke with the friend who identified the driver as Peter Helfenstein.

Additionally, an anonymous tip came into Milwaukee Police District 2 about a man named "Peter Helfenstein" who was hiding out in a garage a few blocks from the crash shortly after it happened, according to police.

Police say they called St. Joseph's Hospital which confirmed Helfenstein was admitted about 45 minutes after the crash.

When approached by police in his hospital room, officers asked Helfenstein if he knew why they were there?

"Because of the accident," he replied. He was then arrested, according to police.

In a criminal complaint, the defendant said he was the single occupant of a pickup truck and did not remember much of the crash. He said after the crash he was disoriented and ran to a friend's house. The friend then took him to the hospital for his broken arm. Helfenstein admitted to police to using heroin that day prior to the crash, the complaint says.

At the time of the crash, Helfenstein's license was revoked.

FOX6 News spoke with a family member of the three victims. She said they are grateful to the public for helping them to track down the suspect and it's giving them a little boost at a time when they need it most.

In court Friday, District Attorney Karine O'Byrne noted the defendant had multiple bench warrants out for his arrest and attributed that to her recommended bail.

"Clearly he has no ability to comply with orders designed to protect the community -- and three times the court systems of Wisconsin has said, 'We're going to give him another chance,'" O'Byrne said. "But this grandmother and these two children never got another chance. We are recommending $5,000 cash bail -- no drugs, level five supervision, no driving."

In court Friday, Helfenstein appeared with a state public defender. During the hearing, Helfenstein attempted to interrupt Court Commissioner Barry Phillips.

Phillips: If I was you, I wouldn't say anything right now...
Phillips: But you had an accident. And instead of stopping to make sure a 70-year-old woman and 7-year-old child and a 4-year-old child was ok, you allegedly left the scene. According to an anonymous tip, you allegedly were hiding and then went to the hospital.

Helfenstein: Can I say something about that? I know you don't want me to say nothing.

Assistant State Public Defender Colleen Cullen: Mr. Helfenstein, everything is being recorded. Everything can be used against you. You should not say anything until you talk to your lawyer.


Helfenstein: Alright I'll keep my mouth shut.

Phillips: Now, you allegedly told police officers that after the accident you was disoriented. But if the allegations of the complaint are true, you wasn't too disoriented to go hide at your friend's house.

Helfenstein: I didn't hide at my friend's house, I went to the hospital.

Cullen: Mr. Helfenstein you're not supposed to be responding right now. It's not helping your case.

Phillips: The bottom line is, you allegedly didn't do what you're supposed to do when you get into an accident. 

Helfenstein's bail is set at $5,000 cash. He is due back in court Monday, May 11.