Every time we take to the open road, we entrust our lives to a safety net of legal protection and basic human decency. That system has failed.
by David Darlington
By almost any measure, Sonoma County should qualify as cycling heaven. Spanning more than a million acres from the Pacific coast to the Mayacamas Mountains, it has every kind of riding, from flat to steep to gently rolling, much of it on lightly traveled roads through quiet forests, farmland and vineyards-a pastoral landscape that, blessed by a balmy climate, amounts to a paradise for two-wheeled travel. That, no doubt, is why race organizers chose it for two stages of the 2007 Tour of California-the first one rolling up the coast and heading inland toward Santa Rosa on Occidental Road, the second passing through -Sonoma and Napa Valleys via Trinity Grade, an 8.2 percent slope of chaparral.
In the United States, however, cycling heaven is a qualified concept. Five years previous to the 2007 race, Ross Dillon set off on a June training ride that reversed the peloton’s eventual route. A 25-year-old Cat 3 racer who had ridden with the 2007 TOC winner Levi Leipheimer on group outings from Santa Rosa, Dillon was spending the summer at his family’s home on Trinity Road before starting his first year of law school at Boston College. Since graduating cum laude from Santa Clara University in 1999, he had moved to the East Coast with his girlfriend, Katie, also a B.C. law student, whom he was now planning to marry in August. In the meantime, having saved some money from a job as an investment clerk at Liberty Mutual, Dillon was taking the summer off to race and train, hoping to upgrade to Cat 2 with the Boston Bicycle Club in the fall.
“In races Ross would typically be third or fourth,” says his father, Rusty, who is also a cyclist, as well as a psychotherapist and Anglican minister. “He once told me that he thought he had too wholesome a family background to be a really successful racer-he wasn’t angry enough.”
“He was afraid of being hurt,” Rusty’s wife, Betsy, elaborates. “He wouldn’t go out and take risks.” Among his friends, Ross was known for a funny and disarming, if stubborn, personality. When a low-intensity training ride turned into a hammerfest, Dillon would ride resolutely off the back. If somebody in the group was acting like a jerk-being overly critical of riders, or telling everyone else what to do-Ross would pedal up alongside the authoritarian and announce how honored he was to ride with him. That sort of thing made people laugh. Everybody would loosen up.
At about 12:30 p.m. on June 3, 2002, Betsy telephoned Ross from her job tutoring children with learning disabilities. He told her that he was going to ride his Land Shark into Santa Rosa, go to the bank and the bike shop, and be home for dinner by 6:30. In between, he’d do a long ride out toward the coast, heading west from Santa Rosa on Occidental Road.
Occidental, a fast, semi-rural two-lane road, marks the geographic transition from eastern to western Sonoma County. Although the wine industry has given this area a reputation for civilized gentility, Santa Rosa (the county seat) is becoming a congested urban grid, and the region’s wooded western reaches are giving way grudgingly to different kinds of development. With the demise of dairies and orchards, wine grapes now compete for prominence with the county’s other major cash crop, cannabis sativa. As California Highway Patrol officer Eric Nelson observes: “Those back roads that are so wonderful to ride and drive on were built for farmers in agrarian times, not for the [conditions] we have today. We’re driving 2000-model vehicles on roads designed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.”
It was a 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage that Cathie Hamer was driving at 2:45 p.m. when she turned off California 116 (the Gravenstein Highway) west onto Occidental Road. She was on her regular commute route from the town of Sebastopol, where she owned a shop called Yin Yang Clothing-a boutique that sells hemp garments, jewelry, incense and Eastern religious statuary. After stopping off at the supermarket, Hamer was headed for her home in Duncans Mills, a tourist stop on the Russian River, which was a half-hour drive away. Occidental Road isn’t the most direct or well-traveled route -between these two points, but that is the reason Hamer-and Ross Dillon-preferred it. As the road enters the coastal hills to the west, it gets twisty and more hazardous, but in the stretch where Cathie Hamer began to overtake Dillon, it is one of the least challenging sections of pavement in western Sonoma County.
“The road there is straight and the shoulder is wide,” corroborates Travis Bland, then a 16-year-old student who happened to be driving behind Hamer on his way home from Analy High School. As Bland followed a few lengths behind Hamer at 50 miles an hour, he noticed that, for no apparent reason, her car was starting to drift to the right, gradually entering the bike lane behind a cyclist up the road. “I thought maybe [Hamer] knew him and was trying to scare him,” Bland recalls. “I thought it might have been one of my classmates playing a joke on somebody.” He could clearly see, though, that if the Mirage didn’t steer back into the road right away, it was on a collision course with the bike.
At 2:50, Dale Killilea was standing on a deck at Plumfield Academy, a school a half mile to the north, when he and a few of his fellow teachers heard a “large, ugly crash.” Although there had been no screeching tires or blaring horns, they thought a significant two-car collision had occurred. “[The sound] was so loud that you could feel it even where I was standing,” Killilea says.
This “boom” also got the attention of Ken Fader, an oral surgeon who was headed east in his car on Occidental Road. Turning his eyes toward the source of the sound, Fader saw Hamer’s Mitsubishi barreling through the grass on the other side of the road, debris flying behind it, a spandex-clad bike rider tumbling in its wake. Then the car swerved back onto the pavement, heading right at Fader before correcting direction again and speeding off to the west. Fader’s first thought was that he’d witnessed an attempted murder. He likens it to a scene in a movie where an assassin runs down a victim: “It was an awful thing to see. It was bizarre-it was breathtaking. It seemed outrageous, because the cyclist was not taking any risk. He seemed to be in as safe a place as a cyclist could be.”
Thinking that the Mirage was fleeing the scene, Fader pulled a U-turn to try to get its license-plate number. Meanwhile, Bland had stopped to flag down other drivers, imploring them to call 911. He also terms the incident “unreal”-when he saw Dillon’s legs flailing above the roof of the car, Bland was “surprised at the height that he was thrown up into the air. It was like he was flying-but then when he hit the ground, he didn’t move at all.”
As Fader turned his car around to chase the Mitsubishi, he saw Dillon in a motionless heap 50 yards from the first point of impact. A trained emergency physician, Fader realized that the cyclist’s survival might be hanging in the balance. “If he’d been conscious he would have righted himself,” Fader says. “That twisted position would have been too uncomfortable.” Fader made a decision to abandon the chase and instead administer to Dillon, whom he found turning blue. Failing to detect a pulse, he repositioned the cyclist’s head to clear his airway, taking care not to worsen any cervical injuries; after he’d done this three times, Dillon coughed weakly and started drawing shallow, raspy breaths. A few minutes later, emergency technicians from local volunteer fire departments pulled up to the scene, responding to the 911 bulletin.
Unbeknownst to most of those present, Cathie Hamer had stopped her car a hundred yards up the road. When officer Nelson arrived at 3:02, he saw Hamer walking toward the spot where Fader and the firemen were attending to Dillon. Crying hysterically and holding both sides of her head with her hands, she fell to her knees as Nelson approached; when he helped her up, he felt her legs wobbling. “What happened?” she kept asking, mucous flowing from her nose.
Nelson walked Hamer back to her car and told her to wait there. He noticed that the vehicle’s right front and sides were damaged-its right windshield wiper had been torn off and the windshield was smashed, including a 10-inch “intrusion” apparently caused by Dillon’s helmet. There was jewelry hanging from the rearview mirror, a bunch of grocery bags in the back seat.
As Dillon was taken away in an ambulance, Nelson thought he was probably a fatality. By the time Nelson returned to talk to Hamer, she had calmed somewhat. “I was just driving along and then there was this big bang,” she said. “I thought to myself that I had been hit by another car. All I saw was black, and there was glass flying everywhere. It all happened so fast. I just ended up here, and I got out and that was when I realized I had hit somebody. Did you get any witnesses? Was he in my lane? I really don’t know what happened. It just went black, and I guess now I know that the black I saw was the guy rolling over my windshield.”
Nelson asked Hamer if she was aware she’d drifted onto the shoulder before the crash. “I was just driving straight,” she said.
“Were you talking on your cell phone, or reaching for something in the car?” Nelson asked. Hamer said that her phone didn’t get reception in that area, and that she’d been looking directly ahead. Finally, Nelson asked if she’d taken any medications or drugs before driving, and she said she hadn’t. As her car was being impounded, Nelson gave Hamer a ride home, during which he concluded that she wasn’t under the influence of alcohol or otherwise impaired, though he didn’t administer any chemical tests.
When the ambulance crew arrived at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, an emergency-room nurse told the operating room: “I’m not sure you have a patient.” Dillon had catastrophic head injuries-a member of the trauma team said he had the biggest brain hematoma she’d ever seen-and his C-7 vertebrae was broken, but his spinal cord was undamaged and, thanks to the quick reactions of passersby and emergency personnel, he entered surgery within 45 minutes of being hit. Over the course of his ordeal, he’d stop breathing four times – immediately after the crash, once in the ambulance, once in the operating room and once in intensive care.
Betsy and Rusty Dillon didn’t learn about their son’s crash until that night. When he failed to come home for dinner, Betsy telephoned the Highway Patrol, which confirmed that a cyclist named Ross Dillon had been involved in an accident. When Betsy asked where he’d been taken, she waited for several minutes on hold before learning the name of the hospital. (Later she realized that the CHP office probably thought Ross was in the morgue.) By the time the Dillons arrived at Memorial, surgeons had already removed part of Ross’s skull to relieve the swelling in his brain, and when Betsy first glimpsed him in the intensive-care unit, she was overwhelmed. “One of his eyes was yellow and swelled up to the size of a baseball,” she remembers. “They had him hooked up to a bed that was moving him from side to side like a rotisserie.”
The prognosis was equally bad. The Dillons were told that Ross would never be the same, and that they should prepare themselves for some very tough decisions. “People thought he might be brain dead,” Betsy says. “When we got there, they started talking to Rusty about donating Ross’s organs.” By the next day, Dillon’s condition had stabilized, but he remained in critical condition and in a coma. Six days after the crash, a neurosurgeon friend of the Dillons rated his chances for future improvement at 5 percent. Upon receiving all this news, Rusty telephoned Kate Moore, a family friend whose son had grown up with Ross. “My beautiful boy is broken,” he said.
One week after the crash, CHP officer Eric Nelson called Cathie Hamer with a few clarifying questions. She told him she had nothing new to add, and that her attorney would have to participate in any further discussions. Nelson said that he understood, but also wanted to let her know that a “possible” bag of marijuana and rolling papers had been found in the glove compartment of her car. (The examiner who evaluated the material described the results inconclusively, saying they’d partially changed color in a chemical test.) Hamer gasped, telling Nelson that the bag contained “herbs” to help her quit smoking cigarettes.
Ultimately Nelson would conclude in his report that, just before she ran into Dillon, Hamer realized she was on the last straight stretch of Occidental Road before the miles of twists and turns, decided to get something out of one of the grocery bags in the back and, in the process, unwittingly steered onto the shoulder at 50 miles an hour.
In other words, it was just an accident. Hamer was distracted-she wasn’t impaired. Because she hadn’t killed Dillon, she couldn’t be charged with manslaughter, and because she wasn’t weaving or braking erratically, she couldn’t be charged with reckless driving. There was never any argument about who was at fault; multiple witnesses testified that Dillon was in the bike lane. It was just his tough luck to be biking on Occidental Road when Cathie Hamer got hungry.
Dillon would remain in a coma for four months, a vegetative state for 10. Two months after the crash, he underwent surgery to drain fluid from his brain and repair a previously undetected fracture in his skull, after which he developed pneumonia and septic shock. He was subsequently moved to a subacute pulmonary ward where his doctors remained pessimistic. During that period, however, his parents began treating him with acupuncture and, unknown to hospital authorities, smuggled an unauthorized TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit into his room, hiding it under a splint on his wrist to stimulate his brain through his right arm-a treatment developed in North Carolina by orthopedic surgeon Edwin Cooper, whose son happened to be a friend of Lance Armstrong’s. Soon after that, Ross began moving his head in response to voice commands, and on January 29 he mouthed his first word since the crash. As a tracheotomy tube to his throat was being suctioned out and changed, Betsy thought she heard him say, “Shit!”
Based on such unexpected developments, in March Dillon was moved to a rehabilitation center in Marin County. Over time, however, the insurance company judged his progress inadequate for continued coverage; treatment had been funded by a COBRA policy he’d taken out upon leaving his job at Liberty Mutual, but the designation of his condition as subacute meant that professional nursing care was no longer medically necessary. Rather than warehouse him in a facility without active therapy, his parents decided to bring him home on June 7, 2003-almost exactly a year after the crash. The Dillons thus became financially responsible for their son’s rehabilitation and equipment, which would come to include a power wheelchair, a hospital bed, a wheelchair-accessible van, a full-time live-in attendant, and regular physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Cathie Hamer’s $25,000 liability insurance had likely been used up by Ross’s emergency care before Betsy and Rusty even learned he’d been in an accident. They later got a note from Hamer, “obviously concocted by her attorney,” to avoid any admission of guilt, says Betsy. The letter said Hamer “couldn’t believe” what had happened. At one point Hamer left the Dillons a tearful telephone message declaring, “You don’t know what this has done to me.” Hamer’s husband sent the Dillons an e-mail saying there hadn’t been a carefree day in their house since the crash.
“I used to believe the one thing worse than this would be if Ross had done it to someone else,” Betsy admits. Still, she feels there’s a difference between Hamer’s remorse and acceptance of responsibility for what happened. Although it might seem like splitting hairs, it doesn’t sit right with Betsy that Hamer never simply said she was sorry. (Such a statement could be used against Hamer in court if the Dillons filed a civil suit, but they say they’d abandoned that notion after learning that she had no assets.)
Part of the reason the Sonoma County district attorney’s office declined to pursue charges against Hamer was its expectation that a jury would identify and sympathize with her, a common occurrence across the country. In that light, Rusty unintentionally describes not only Hamer and her spouse but also the American populace in general when he says: “Their sorrow doesn’t seem to be empathic. It’s always about how bad they feel.”
As cyclists we accept the fact that our pastime can be dangerous. We recognize that riding among automobiles is a risk, we know we’re the equivalent of sitting ducks, we’re aware that drivers don’t pay much attention, we’ve seen cars do all kinds of crazy things, and we’ve had our lives repeatedly threatened by clueless or outright hostile jerks. Still, we pride ourselves on our skills and instincts, confident that we’re alert enough to recognize danger developing and sufficiently skilled to elude it. But none of us has any defense against what happened to Ross Dillon. As the now-22-year-old Travis Bland (who resorted exclusively to mountain biking after witnessing the crash) reflects: “The only thing that might have helped him is if he’d had a mirror. But even then, he would have had only a second or two to react.”
Dillon’s story is a nightmare, its lack of legal accountability an abomination. But it’s only one of many such incidents that have occurred throughout the United States. “Barely a week goes by when you don’t hear of a cyclist being killed, the behavior of the driver being outrageous, and the response of law enforcement or the penalty passed on to the driver being woefully inadequate,” says Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists. “The kinds of crashes we’re talking about almost always involve a motorist who was hopelessly distracted or out of control-speeding, taking corners as they shouldn’t, talking on a cell phone, or reaching for a CD. Most are avoidable and preventable, but the response is so feeble. It’s an intensely frustrating feeling of powerlessness.”
As with Cathie Hamer, the law – or, more accurately, the lack of it – often stands in the way of penalizing inattentive drivers. Gary Brustin, a California personal-injury attorney who specializes in bicycle cases, says that a typical response he encounters among district attorneys is: “‘Give us some ammunition-some teeth in the law.’ Juries are filled with people who aren’t cyclists, and a driver’s behavior has to be far beyond negligent for a criminal case-there have to be aggravating circumstances to make it vehicular manslaughter or murder. If there aren’t, [drivers] usually go to jail for less than a year, or get a suspended sentence.”
“When the intent is not there to kill or harm someone, the offenses aren’t there to prosecute,” Clarke agrees. “When a cyclist is killed by a driver who was text-messaging someone, you read as much in the paper about how awful the driver feels. We’ve made driving so easy, accessible and convenient – and the system is so forgiving – that people can drive distracted at great speeds and mostly get away with it. But we’ve seen conclusively that not paying attention will cause bad things to happen; studies have shown that distracted driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk. We should be penalizing those people the same way that we treat drunk drivers.”
Clarke observes that while cyclists are uniquely vulnerable, society tolerates traffic fatalities in general. “Despite seat belts, anti-lock brakes, air bags, crumple zones and any number of silver-bullet devices, 43,000 people are killed in crashes in the United States every year,” he says. “I worked for four years as a highway contractor for the Federal Highway Transportation Department, which always said that safety was its number-one priority. But if that were true, we wouldn’t kill so many people, including 5,000 pedestrians and 700 cyclists per year. In other countries, they’ve been more active about taking those words seriously.”
The United States has the highest traffic-death rate (15 per 100,000 residents) of all developed democratic countries. Several European nations-for example, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland-have slashed their annual traffic-fatality figures over the past few decades, largely through “traffic-calming” measures that forcibly reduce the speeds of motor vehicles. In places such as Germany and the Netherlands, traffic regulations are actually biased in favor of cyclists and pedestrians-in the event of a bike-car collision, the legal burden is on motorists to prove that they weren’t at fault, and Dutch drivers are financially liable even if cyclists are at fault.
But that’s the Netherlands, where almost half of all local travel is done by bicycle. Dutch and German children are schooled in safe cycling practices and, when they grow older and learn to drive, are taught how to avoid vehicle collisions even with lawbreaking cyclists. In the United States, by contrast, drivers aren’t trained to expect bikes on the road; as bicycle lawyer Brustin observes, after a car runs into a bike, “the number-one statement [of motorists] is ‘I didn’t see him.'”
“That’s just unacceptable,” declares Christine Culver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “Having stuff hanging from your rearview mirror isn’t worth somebody’s life. We can all relate to what it’s like to be in a car and do something stupid, but as a result, people are reluctant to punish [distracted drivers]. They think, ‘If someone’s dead, what good is it going to do?’ It used to be that way with drunk drivers, too. We need to put more responsibility on what it means to drive an automobile. It’s criminal not to be in control of your car, and there should be consequences for it. We’ve done an amazing job protecting people inside the car with seat belts and air bags; we need to put an equal emphasis on protecting people outside the car.”
The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition was founded in 1999 by Janice and Mike Eunice, a retired librarian and a high-school teacher who came to the area because they thought it “the best place in the world to ride a bike.” But after moving to Santa Rosa, the Eunices were disheartened by what they perceived as a bike-unfriendly atmosphere-its lack of bike lanes or cycling facilities, plus the occasional bottle or epithet hurled by a passing motorist. Looking for ways to improve things, they attended a League of American Bicyclists rally in Eugene, Oregon, where they learned that hundreds of millions of federal dollars were available for local bike projects; but when they sat in on meetings of the Santa Rosa Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, they were told that, as a public agency, it wasn’t permitted to lobby for change.
“The staff members recommended that we form an independent advocacy group,” Mike says. The Santa Rosa Cycling Club, of which he was a board member, feared that getting involved in politics would be divisive for a recreational organization. But with $200 donated by the club, a few interested individuals began holding regular meetings and producing a quarterly coalition newsletter. With board members including a mayor, a transit planner, an air-quality expert, a bike-shop owner, an accountant, an attorney and an advocate for the poor, the group contained a formidable collection of skills, and within a year, it had implemented a bicycle-parking program and promoted a Bike to Work Week. In time it would grow to include more than 750 members, representing cyclists at government meetings, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in set-asides for traffic planning, partnering with the city of Santa Rosa to establish a Share the Road campaign, implementing Street Skills for Cyclists and bicycle-education classes for traffic-ticket holders. It has also created at least one new bike lane and bike path per year, sold thousands of cycling maps of Sonoma County, obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and in general, according to Christine Culver, “explained that bikes belong on our roads-even the most narrow road-and that people need to be in control of their cars. It comes down to everyone needing to take a breath and relax-and it’s made a huge difference here. Now we’re contacted by cities and the county when they have questions about implementing a bicycle project.”
A former collegiate and pro mountain bike racer (she won the national downhill championship in 1989), Culver got involved with the Coalition in 2001. She’d been riding her bike to work at Aussie Racing Apparel one morning in Petaluma, south of Santa Rosa, when a driver stopped and motioned for her to cross while she was waiting on the shoulder.
“There wasn’t any crosswalk,” Culver remembers. “The guy stopped in the middle of the street. If I got hit in that situation, I would have been at fault-so I waved him on, and suddenly he started yelling at me to get off the road. Apparently it angered him that he’d made this effort and I hadn’t taken his offer. A lot of people don’t think it’s even legal for cyclists to be on the street.”
As soon as she got to work that day, Culver did a web search for “Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.” She didn’t even know if such a group existed-she’d never been a member of any organization in her life-but she’d noticed the effectiveness of the San Francisco and Marin County coalitions next door. “Marin had done a fantastic job promoting Safe Routes to School,” she says. “San Francisco got bike lanes put in throughout the city and opened the Golden Gate Bridge to bicycles twenty-four hours a day. It showed that bikes are a transportation mechanism just as valid as cars, and it gave me the idea that we could make a change.”
Culver started going to SCBC meetings and volunteering at the group’s public-information tables. “I’d been working in sales and bike shops for fifteen years,” she remembers. “Now I was going to council meetings and trying to figure out the system – who was making policy decisions, who were the bicycle-friendly politicians, where the money for bike projects came from.” She turned out to be a fast learner: Culver was elected to the Coalition’s board of directors that same year and became its executive director in June 2002 – the same month that Cathie Hamer ran into Ross Dillon.
At the time, Culver says, she didn’t know how to support a family in the Dillons’ circumstances. “I didn’t want to intrude on their grief,” she says. “Their focus was on Ross, and it seemed so trivial to say, ‘I want to go after this woman.’ I tried to get more information, but the police wouldn’t release the accident report to me because I wasn’t family. I kept running into roadblocks and didn’t know how to get around them.”
As part of her education in two-wheeled politics, Culver also attended educational -retreats staged by the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of local and state bicycle groups working to influence legislation and advance bicycle safety. She started to learn how to deal with the media, raise money and connect with public officials. “A lot of it is networking and long-term relationships,” she says. “Now I have contacts I can call in local law enforcement. I’ve also learned that families like the Dillons need the support of the cycling community-people with the background to pressure the D.A. and see that justice is done.”
Unfortunately, after two years of on-the-job learning, Culver would get a chance to put her new skills to the test.
On Easter Sunday of 2004, Alan Liu and Jill Mason embarked on a bike ride from Santa Rosa. They’d been dating for about six months since meeting on the master’s swim team in Mountain View, south of San Francisco. Liu, 31, was the team’s head coach; a graduate of MIT and Stanford, he was employed by Applied Materials, a semiconductor-equipment manufacturer in Silicon Valley, where he’d recently been made a manager. (He also held four engineering patents.) In addition, Liu was a successful coach: A competitive swimmer since age five, he was known for encouraging people to perform beyond their own expectations. Since taking over the 300-member Mountain View master’s program in 1997, he’d expanded it to include water polo and triathlons.
Like Liu, Mason, 26, was a triathlete. Growing up in the -Sierra Nevada foothills, she’d been a member of the track, cross-country, lacrosse and soccer teams at Nevada Union High School, where she was nicknamed Forrest Gump because of her surprising speed. Shorter than most of her opponents, Mason was a fierce competitor in the 100-meter hurdles despite taking four steps between each set of barriers instead of the usual three (and thus leading with a different leg on every other hurdle). She had gone on to run marathons at Santa Clara University, which she’d attended at the same time as Ross Dillon-in fact, she’d contributed to his rehabilitation fund the previous year. With a new master’s degree in mass communications from San Jose State, Mason was working as a marketing director for an environmental and geotechnical engineering company in Mountain View, where she met Alan Liu after joining the swim team. The confident, upbeat Mason was a match for the energetic Liu, and soon the two of them were running, riding and swimming together regularly.
They planned their Easter ride to prepare for an upcoming half-Ironman triathlon, riding 30 miles in Sonoma Valley that April 11, passing not far from the Dillons’ house on Trinity Road. At 11:19 a.m., the route brought them back into eastern Santa Rosa on California Highway 12, a high-speed artery that becomes increasingly congested as it approaches the city. Local riders avoid it, but Liu and Mason were out-of-town visitors, seeking the most direct route back into town to meet Liu’s mother for brunch.
As the couple pedaled west on the highway, Harvey Hereford got into his Nissan Sentra at the seniors-only Oakmont subdivision, adjacent to Highway 12. Hereford wasn’t expecting any Easter visitors; on the contrary, he later said that he felt deserted by his family. A 69-year-old personal-injury attorney, he was described by neighbors as a friendly and funny guy, but his ex-wife had recently called police when she couldn’t reach him, thinking he might be suicidal. Over the past 15 years, 10 federal tax liens and one state Employment Development lien had been issued against Hereford’s office and former residence in San Francisco.
At 11:20, a pair of Oakmont residents, Kate Brolan and Sydney Brown, were sitting in their car on Pythian Road, waiting at a red light at the intersection with Highway 12. When the light turned green, a Nissan Sentra in front of them pulled out and turned toward Santa Rosa; within seconds, according to Brown, it was flying “like a shot out of hell,” weaving all over the road as it bore down on a pair of cyclists on the shoulder. Liu was riding behind Mason, and the car hit him first, killing him instantly as it severed his brain stem. An instant later it slammed into Mason, cleaving her spinal cord, lacerating her liver, breaking her arm and traumatizing her brain. When Brolan and Brown reached her, she was sobbing and shivering on the ground.
Not unlike Cathie Hamer’s Mitsubishi, the Nissan came to a stop a hundred yards up the road, where its driver was detained by a couple of passing off-duty cops. -Hereford, whose driver’s license was found to have expired, told the officers that he suspected something was wrong when he noticed that his windshield was broken. He didn’t remember running into anybody; nor did he remember getting into his car or driving away from his house. His blood-alcohol percentage was 0.29, more than three times the legal limit.
As with Ross Dillon, doctors at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital expected Mason to either die or remain in a vegetative state. A day after the crash, her mother and father – Joanne, a school counselor, and Larry, an adaptive phys ed teacher for disabled students-were given the same pessimistic advice the Dillons had received. That night, more than three dozen Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition members gathered in front of the county courthouse and rode in silence to the hospital, where they held a candlelight vigil for Mason. Among them were Betsy and Rusty Dillon, who urged Mason’s parents not to give up-they said they’d received similar predictions about Ross, and that two years later he was still improving.
Sure enough, the next day Jill Mason’s doctors reported that her prognosis wasn’t as bad as they’d feared. But the story was over for Alan Liu, whose stepsister had been killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Day the previous year.
A weeklong debate about traffic safety and bicycle-car animosity ensued in the pages of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. A letter complaining about cyclists who run stop signs and hog the road was printed in the paper under the headline “Educate Riders,” and one week after the Mason-Liu tragedy, Press Democrat reporter Paul Payne published a story about “daredevil” cyclists entitled “Taking Risks on the Road.” None of this negative rhetoric pertained to the behavior of Mason and Liu, who had been riding single file on the shoulder, and Christine Culver vented her outrage that day at an SCBC information table on the Sonoma town plaza. “They’re trying to make this a bicycling issue when it’s a drunk-driving issue,” she complained to Danny O’Reilly, an SCBC member who had volunteered to park bikes at the Earth Day celebration they were both staffing.
O’Reilly, a marketing analyst at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, north of Santa Rosa, e-mailed Culver from work the next day. “I read the article you mentioned,” he wrote. “It’s just that a stupid motorist can do a whole lot more damage than a stupid cyclist. That’s where the author let everyone down. All activities carry a risk to them-even sitting on your couch (radon gas under the home or formaldehyde in the insulation).” O’Reilly went on to cite a study that compared the risks, on a per-passenger-mile basis, of all modes of transportation. “Scuba diving tops the list,” he revealed. “Elevator travel is the safest mode of transportation. Cycling is slightly more dangerous than driving.”
O’Reilly lived 20 miles southeast of Santa Rosa in the town of Agua Caliente,- where he and his wife, Patty, a dance teacher, were raising two daughters. A former fund-raiser for the San Francisco Ballet, he’d taken up cycling when he couldn’t continue dancing; he often made the 60-mile round-trip to work and back by bike, showering and changing in a locker room he’d convinced Kendall-Jackson to build. O’Reilly was known as the company’s “environmental conscience”-he’d spearheaded its bike-to-work and recycling programs, and on the evening of the day he e-mailed Culver, he planned to check the insulation in his attic to see if it could be made more energy-efficient. At five o’clock on April 19, he started pedaling home on Mark West Springs Road, aiming to circumvent the city on a winding backcountry route called Riebli Road.
William Michael Albertson was also headed east on Mark West Springs Road in a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The 46-year-old, who lived in Lake County, to the north, was on probation from federal prison for battery with serious bodily injury. Clinically diagnosed as bipolar, he also had a history of alcoholism, but had been sober from 1984 to 1999. During that time, Albertson had developed a successful recording business, but in 1996 a loudspeaker had fallen on him, injuring his back. He’d subsequently become addicted to painkillers, and on April 19 he was out of drugs-he’d caused a ruckus in nearby Healdsburg when he showed up at a couple of medical facilities demanding medication, then driven on to Santa Rosa and started drinking in his truck. Eventually he’d called a girlfriend to come pick him up, but she’d responded that a DUI would serve him right. Ultimately, Albertson later claimed, he decided to check himself into a hospital in St. Helena, 25 miles from Santa Rosa via Mark West Springs Road.
According to the police report, Albertson rear-ended a -vehicle at a red light at 4:38 p.m. He drove away, and 45 minutes later the Highway Patrol got a call from a fireman reporting an F-150 blocking a lane of Mark West Springs Road. The truck had a broken headlight and a dented hood, and the right side of its windshield was shattered; the driver, described as intoxicated and belligerent, was resisting efforts to treat a cut on his forehead. When the police arrived, Albertson got out of his truck and blurted, “Fuck you, copper! I’m a convicted felon – what are you going to do?” He reached into the rear of his waistband and took a step toward the patrolman, who doused him with pepper spray and arrested him. Albertson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.22.
As firefighters were clearing debris, they noticed a bicycle wheel on the south side of the road. Looking farther, they peered over an adjacent guardrail and saw a body 10 yards away. It was determined that Danny O’Reilly had died of a head injury, and moreover that his hair matched a sample found in Albertson’s windshield. Albertson, who hadn’t previously said anything about hitting a cyclist, admitted he’d sideswiped O’Reilly; he said he’d “stopped and prayed,” but had continued driving, losing control of his truck at the spot where he was arrested.
“You know what I am?” Albertson sobbed to police officers who’d taken him to a hospital for a blood test. “I’m a fucking junkie. I’m an artist but…I killed that man and I need to pay.”
When Christine Culver learned that Danny O’Reilly had been run over on the same day he’d e-mailed her about the risks of road cycling, she was, to put it mildly, stunned. “He was such a good person,” she laments. “Danny was the kind of soul you wish this world could have more of.” In light of the Mason-Liu tragedy only a week earlier, it seemed that some kind of curse had been cast on Sonoma County cyclists. The SCBC didn’t react with voodoo rituals, however. A lawyer named Oren Noah, one of the group’s founding members, proposed a campaign similar to one that had been waged five years earlier in Marin County, after a rider named Cecily Krone-an occupational therapist who worked with handicapped children-was killed at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday by a drunk driver searching for a cigarette. Cyclists packed county courtrooms at every hearing related to the case, and the driver was sentenced to six years in jail for vehicular -manslaughter. Noah now suggested that Sonoma cyclists follow that example, not only to draw the attention of judges and the media, but also to show the perpetrators themselves “that they killed humans with friends and robbed from the community…. [and to] maintain the focus where it should be: on the drunk killers.”
Two nights after O’Reilly’s death, SCBC members joined a group of victims-rights advocates in front of the Sonoma County courthouse. Before newspaper and TV reporters, they hammered home the message that these deaths weren’t an inevitable outgrowth of a dangerous sport, but rather products of a cultural attitude that promotes impatience and irresponsibility. “If the public thinks it’s just ‘those crazy people’ who were killed, they don’t have any reason to get involved,” Culver says. “We had to show that a bicyclist isn’t just something in your way – it’s somebody’s dad, or dentist or doctor.” This new alliance with the county’s Victim Assistance Center (a division of the district attorney’s office) gave the SCBC an ear on the court schedule, so when hearings for Hereford and Albertson were imminent, Culver e-mailed the SCBC membership, urging people to take off work and show up at the courthouse in person.
Given the narrow time span in which Liu and O’Reilly were killed, legal proceedings against the two drivers were almost simultaneous. Bill Brockley, a deputy D.A. in the homicide division, was handling both cases for the county; and when he came down the corridor for Hereford’s arraignment, he was surprised to see a crowd outside the courtroom. “There were probably 50 people,” Brockley remembers. “I thought it was going to be support for the defendant, but as I got closer, I saw it was people carrying helmets and wearing bicycle lapel pins.” This demonstration continued throughout the summer, with cyclists filling the courtrooms even when hearings for Hereford and Albertson occurred at the same time. Reportedly, everyone who worked in the courthouse, from bailiffs to lawyers to judges, was moved by the show of support.
“You rarely get people coming to court when they don’t know the victim,” says Brockley the prosecuting attorney. “It was -remarkable that most of them weren’t personally acquainted with the cyclists who died-they were just concerned citizens who helped the court see the seriousness and reality of the losses. When a judge has discretion in sentencing and knows that the public is watching, it really has an effect.”
Hereford and Albertson both ended up pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. At Hereford’s sentencing, he was confronted by an especially effective witness: the wheelchair-bound Jill Mason, who had been released from the hospital only a few days earlier. After Hereford ran into her, Mason had remained in a coma for five days; a hole had been cut into her throat to allow her to breathe, and surgeons operated on her broken spine for 12 hours. She was fed through a tube for a month, and didn’t speak for eight weeks. She had no memory of the crash, nor of Alan Liu – she found out that she’d lost a boyfriend from e-mail collected on her computer.
Today Mason can drive a car, paddle a kayak, work out at a gym and ride a hand-powered bike. She lives on her own with a roommate in Sacramento and gives PowerPoint presentations to school groups for the Every Fifteen Minutes program (named for the frequency with which someone dies in a drunk-driving crash). Short of some miraculous breakthrough in medical research, however, she’ll never walk again.
Hereford, who admitted he was guilty of “a monumentally selfish act,” was sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison, the maximum for his offenses. Albertson, whose punishment was aggravated by fleeing the scene as well as by his earlier felony conviction for battery, got 14 years.
“The court does intend to send a message to the defendant(s) and to the community that drinking and driving will not be tolerated in Sonoma County,” declared judge Elaine Rushing. “Bicycle riders have the same rights as automobile drivers.”
Unfortunately, Rushing neglected to heed her own message. Nine months later, she was arrested for drunk driving on Riebli Road, not far from the spot where Albertson killed O’Reilly. She remains on the bench, but no longer hears criminal cases.
For months after Danny O’Reilly died, his widow, Patty, was unable to sleep, cook or clean. She abandoned the garden that Danny had planted and she closed her 11-year-old ballet school in Vallejo, 25 miles away. What she wanted most at that point, other than getting her husband back, was revenge on his killer.
One night during this period, as O’Reilly’s daughters, 12-year-old Erin and seven-year-old Siobhan, were resisting her order to take a bath, she found herself screaming at them in a way that hardly fit their crime. “They were the last people who needed to be yelled at,” she acknowledges now. “I was carrying around a lot of anger and hatred and self-pity, and in that moment it became clear to me that I had to let go of it. Otherwise, I would end up hurting not Mike Albertson, but my daughters and myself.”
At Albertson’s sentencing, Patty would have a chance to address him directly. Before that took place, however, she read a background report on him that revealed that, as a child, he had been raped by his own father. “If I called him the scum of the earth,” O’Reilly reasoned, “he would just feel more self-pity. Then, when he got out of jail, he’d probably start drinking again and another family would be in our situation.”
Albertson wept throughout his sentencing hearing, ultimately apologizing to the family and asking for their forgiveness. Sometime after that, Siobhan made a card for him that contained a drawing of her own face streaked with tears; it nevertheless said, “I’m not mad at you.” Patty subsequently decided to investigate a new state prison program for “restorative justice,” in which victims meet with convicts so that both can process the consequences of their crimes. Her first such excursion was to San Quentin, in Marin County, where she spoke not with Albertson but with other convicted killers. The following year, a mediator from the California Office of Victim and Survivor Services, Rochelle Edwards, arranged a meeting between O’Reilly and Albertson.
In order to take part in the encounter, Albertson had to undergo months of preparation and training, which included accepting responsibility for his crime. Over the course of these meetings, he told Edwards that, in the weeks before he killed Danny O’Reilly, he had been angry at an acquaintance of his girlfriend’s, who had been urging her to end her codependent relationship. The friend happened to be a cyclist, and Albertson had developed a theory that, when he saw O’Reilly on his bike, he might have transferred his rage to Danny and hit him intentionally.
Edwards conveyed this to Patty, who, as she thought it over, doubted that the drunken Albertson would have been able to steer his truck that well. She decided she still wanted to go through with the meeting, which took place in September 2006 at a state prison near Sacramento. Accompanied by her sister Mary, O’Reilly sat across a table from Albertson and told him how much hatred she’d felt toward him; she recounted her last conversation with Danny, and she recalled the nightmare, when he didn’t come home that night, of seeing a sheriff’s deputy approach their house. She described the reactions of her daughters when she told them that their father was dead, showed Albertson an album of family photos, and enumerated all the things she and her children had to do without a father or husband. Still, she said, it had taken courage for Albertson to admit he might have hit Danny on purpose. “Maybe this is a chance to redeem yourself,” she said.
Albertson said he’d been driven to addiction by a history of abuse. He revealed that after hitting Danny, crashing his truck, and seeing the Highway Patrol pull up, he’d pretended to reach for a gun because he wanted to be put out of his misery. He admitted, however, that nobody could repair the damage from what he had lived through. “I just have to feel it,” he said.
O’Reilly told Albertson not to feel sorry for himself-that would constitute “going backward.” She urged him to stay active in Alcoholics Anonymous and she gave him a bracelet that Siobhan, now 10, had made for him. As part of the restorative justice program, Albertson is required to write to O’Reilly every three months, and in their correspondence, Patty later suggested to him that, in addition to staying sober, Albertson get help for the emotional trauma that had caused him to start drinking.
A prison guard told Edwards that, until Albertson started corresponding with O’Reilly, he’d never heard an inmate admit blame for a crime. “‘Satisfying’ isn’t really the right word to describe it,” O’Reilly says of her resulting feelings. “Mike also thanked me for saving his life, which came as a bit of a shock-I can’t say I was entirely pleased to be thanked for saving the man who killed my husband. But I’m glad this process forced him to deal with issues he had chosen not to deal with.”
In the course of confronting Albertson, Patty had researched the word “vengeance,” which, she learned, had less to do with revenge than it did with justice. “My revenge was for him to face me across a table and get the full impact of what he did,” she says. “I don’t think ‘an eye for an eye’ was ever meant to be taken literally, but in that sense I got a life for a life. Mike is a different man now. And I’ve let go of the poisonous anger I felt, which has helped me and my daughters heal.”
A few months after O’Reilly resolved to forgive Albertson, another ballet school came up for sale in Sonoma. Its director was retiring, and Patty decided to buy it with life insurance from Danny. She now works 3 miles from home, teaching children the art and discipline that first brought her and her husband together.
At 10 a.m. on February 20, 2007, Stage 2 of the Tour of California rolled out of Santa Rosa into Sonoma Valley. Within half an hour of the start, the race crossed Highway 12 and began climbing Trinity Road, the day’s first test in the King of the Mountains competition. Partway up the 3-mile, 1,320-foot climb, the riders passed a driveway where a group of friends and families had gathered, waving and clanging cowbells as the peloton passed by. In the throng, wearing a red-and-white bicycle jersey and sitting in a wheelchair, was Ross Dillon.
In the five years since he was run into by Cathie Hamer, Dillon – thanks to his family, a nationwide support network and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations – had defied his doctors’ predictions. Unresponsive and incapable of movement when he came home in June 2003 (he was still being fed through a tube), Dillon started moving his right leg the following December and swallowing pureed food in March; by July ’04 he was nodding or shaking his head in response to questions, and six months later he started feeding himself with a spoon. In July ’05, after seeming to mouth words silently for some time, he flabbergasted his family and live-in caregiver, Jeremiah Temo, by saying, “I love my parents and they love me” and “I don’t want to die.”
“My theory is that he’d been practicing,” his mother Betsy says. “I’ve always thought there was more going on cognitively than Ross could show us.”
A week before the Tour of California came by, Dillon had stood up under his own power, steadied by Temo’s hand on his arm. “His therapists all say they don’t see a ceiling yet,” Betsy reports.
Dillon’s upper body is amazingly strong-the kind of musculature you would expect from a mature athlete in his prime. Still, it’s hard to watch his 60-year-old parents struggle to reteach their 30-year-old son how to walk and talk. Although Dillon’s spinal cord was undamaged, his brain injuries were severe, and from the waist up, his motor and cognitive skills lag far behind those of Jill Mason. Enormous effort is required for him to ambulate and communicate, and even though his stubbornness seems intact, his attention continually wanders (to be recaptured, most typically, by gummy bears, which he reliably grabs and chews).
“We had Ross as we knew him up to that instant [when Hamer hit him], and then we had another Ross,” his father Rusty says philosophically. “He’s still distinctly Ross, but one whose life is extremely different. At one point it was hard to believe he would be able to do one-tenth of what he does now. So we have to live according to our faith, trusting that his story isn’t over yet.”
Betsy offers an apt metaphor for how they cope. “We just put one foot in front of the other,” she says. “My hope is that Ross will be independent-able to take care of himself, with supervision-by the time I’m gone. Usually I can be totally focused on doing what’s best for him. Periodically I’m overwhelmed with grief; it takes me about an hour or so, and then I’m back in the saddle. It has to do with the juxtaposition of where he is now and where he was before-he was so vigorous and excited about getting married and going to law school. He had moved from being our child to being our friend. And he wanted to be a dad so bad.”
Cathie Hamer became a mother earlier this year. She was never charged with any driving infraction, fined, ordered to perform community service, or even required to attend traffic school for running into Dillon. She and her husband subsequently moved to the Mendocino County coast, though Hamer still has a clothing shop in Sebastopol; at one point, the Dillons received a telephone message from her mother offering to donate an unspecified “portion of profits” from a sale at the store, but Rusty and Betsy declined, saying they didn’t want a commercial venture to use Ross’s name as advertising.
Today Betsy Dillon believes that anyone responsible for hitting another person should lose his or her license for six months and be required to work in an injury clinic or rehab facility. “I don’t think [Hamer] should have gone to jail,” Betsy allows, “but I think she should be doing something more than feeling bad.”
“At the very least, she should be doing community service,” says Christine Culver. “I have no doubt she was distraught, but people have to be responsible for their behavior. Her actions need to keep this from happening to somebody else.”
It would be nice to be able to end this story by describing how much safer the Santa Rosa area is now for cyclists – how the deaths of Liu and O’Reilly, and the shattered lives of Dillon and Mason, shocked Sonoma County into realizing that, as Culver says, bicycles belong on the road and people need to be in control of their cars. In fact, last year the Santa Rosa Police Department doubled the number of speeding tickets it issued in 2005, helping reduce vehicle collisions by 10 percent and total traffic fatalities from 12 to two. But it’s also true that, a year after Liu and O’Reilly were killed, another drunk driver (72-year-old Joseph Lynchard) slaughtered another innocent cyclist (43-year-old Kathryn Black) on Mark West Springs Road and, the year after that, an off-duty nurse on a bike (47-year-old Kathy Hiebel) was slain by a truck driver (46-year-old Reymundo Hernandez) who turned in front of her at an intersection in Santa Rosa. Lynchard, who had six previous DUI arrests, will probably die in jail-he pleaded guilty to murder in a so-called Watson decision, named for the Supreme Court finding that ignoring the risks inherent in drunk driving implies malicious intent. As for Hernandez, a police investigation found that he appeared to be at fault for killing Hiebel, though no charges have yet been filed against him.
“Is it safer?” Culver asks, pondering the inevitable question. “I don’t know. It’s better known now that hitting a cyclist is a serious offense, but we still have a long way to go. It’s a cultural shift that needs to take place – a change in how we are in our cars. A change in TV commercials that are always pushing speed and horsepower, a change in the mind-set that racing around in a car is cool, and a change in society’s understanding so we acknowledge the fact that being inattentive at the wheel of a car is criminal.”
Maybe most basically, Culver believes, we need to change the language we use to describe the consequences. “Call them crashes,” she says. “Not accidents.”
Berkeley, California-based David Darlington’s last story for BICYCLING was about Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, in September 2007. In addition to original research, this article is based on police and legal documents, and on reporting that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Los Angeles Times.
Source URL: http://www.bicycling.com/news/advocacy/broken