Bikelash PART X: Epilogue

On the morning of March 29, 2012, while riding my bicycle, I hit and killed a man who was crossing the street.

This is not a story of who was at fault, though at first it seemed that way.

We all share a critical responsibility when we go out into the world: the duty to keep one another safe. I failed in that responsibility and, as a result, we will never get back the life of Sutchi Hui. Words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for his death and for the loss to his family. I carry that sorrow with me every day.

This story is about what happened after the accident—and it’s a story that happens all too often: High-profile cases get tried not in courtrooms, but on TV and the internet. Media fans the flames, the public quickly passes judgment, and elected officials bend the system to secure political wins—at the expense of due process and fair outcomes.

The narrative is based on court transcripts, newspaper and online articles, television broadcasts, and extensive notes and journal entries I made in the months after the accident. To protect the privacy of others, I changed some names. All else is true to my memory of what happened.

I am sharing this not for redemption or personal profit, but because this side of the story rarely gets told. To make sure our justice system treats all defendants fairly, we need to speak up when it doesn’t.

I’m Chris Bucchere.

And this is Bikelash.

PART X: Epilogue

Fall 2018

In the years since the accident, I’ve tried to understand the motivation behind every person who had played a role—and mostly, I do. I may not approve or agree, but I have mostly settled on the reasons why each person made the decisions they did. Each person, that is, except Nathan Pollak, a.k.a. Mr. Several Red Lights and Stop Signs.

Why would a small business owner have fabricated a narrative that claimed I had done reckless, asinine things I hadn’t? Why had he been willing to put his own credibility on the line? I understand wanting to be a Good Samaritan and help the police—but he had knowingly lied, under oath, to do it.

He had risked his reputation and his livelihood by coming forward with an invented narrative giving precisely the ammunition that prosecutors needed to raise my charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. Why? Had he wanted the attention? Did he like being the star witness? Was it a Superman Complex? Or had he been paid off?

No one jeopardizes his own life without the hope of at least something in return. What was in it for Nathan Pollak?

Nathan Pollak (far left) and Heidi Gibson (second from right) receiving $250,000

Four months after Pollak came forward with his narrative about a reckless cyclist he had thought he had seen near Market and Castro, his business became one of twelve small businesses in the country to be awarded a grant of $250,000 from a new program by Chase, LivingSocial, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

What was the groundbreaking and innovative achievement of the business that beat out nearly 70,000 other applicants?

A café that serves grilled cheese sandwiches.

Also, just ninety days after he had testified, Pollak and his business partner and now wife, Heidi Gibson, won the Small Business of the Year award, presented by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

Was The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen the best small business in San Francisco? I don’t know; perhaps it was. I do know, however, that Nathan Pollak was the only small business owner who had volunteered to lie to the prosecutors so they could raise my charge to a felony. The timing of these two prestigious awards seems rather conspicuous, although it doesn’t prove that Pollak received them as direct payouts for his role in ruining my life and reputation.

It just seems fishy.


The Hui family, as one of the conditions of my probation, had asked my probation officer to steer me toward elder care as one of my community service modalities. Technically speaking, however, I was allowed to complete my hours doing any type of service work, as long as I worked exclusively for nonprofits.

After I had completed some hours on projects to benefit the homeless and our national parks, Omid had asked Ted if I could do more work in the field of elder care. Happy to comply, I reached out to a number of senior centers, elder care facilities, different types of assisted living residences, and a few hospices. Ruling out anything that wasn’t a nonprofit left very few choices.

I had some brief phone conversations with the remaining facilities, during which the subject of my felony conviction would invariably come up. It didn’t take long for me to realize that felons aren’t normally given access to the elderly.

I wrote to Ted and my probation officer to explain this dilemma. Ted put a call in to Omid.

Rather than giving up on elder care entirely, Omid told Ted he would like to call the people who had turned me down for community service projects with elders and deliver a personal message about how I was indeed a convicted felon, but somehow I was still a suitable person to work with the elderly.

Why on earth would Omid do something like that?

I suspected that, as part of his negotiations with the Hui family, Omid had promised them that I would do elder care service work—but now I couldn’t, because he made a felon out of me.


From: Chris Bucchere
To: Ann Peabody
Subject: Volunteer Opportunities at the Senior Service Center

Hi Ann,

I just heard from one of my attorneys that the Senior Service Center is going to accept me as a volunteer. That’s great news! I am confused however, because I thought there were strict rules in place about allowing convicted felons to engage in any kind of elder care. I thought this would especially be the case for violent crimes like murder and manslaughter. If you don’t mind my asking, why was there a sudden change of heart/policy?

 

Regardless, I look forward to serving your organization and I hope my felony manslaughter conviction won’t be an issue.

Best regards,

Chris


From: Ann Peabody
To: Chris Bucchere
Subject: Re: Volunteer Opportunities at the Senior Service Center

Good Morning Chris,

You had an advocate. We understand the circumstances. You’ll still be required to register as a regular volunteer, including a free background check. Please give me a call so we can set-up a time frame that’s convenient for you.

Happy Holidays!

Ann Peabody
Director of Volunteer Services, Senior Service Center


The ADA was now my advocate? After all we’ve been through? I tried to quell my anger by appreciating the obvious irony.

After I calmed down a bit, I called and left a voicemail for Ann to tell her I was thrilled to accept the food service position she offered me in Healdsburg.

I never heard back from her.


My insurance company, YNK Insurance, agreed to pay out $2,100,000 to settle the Hui family’s demand.

I didn’t harbor any animosity toward them for demanding this money. Betty Hui knew three versions of the events that transpired on March 29: her story, which was that she and Terry had waited for the WALK symbol (and then some); the DA’s story, which was that I had recklessly sped into the intersection trying to break a land speed record, blowing three red lights and stop signs, making no attempt to stop and violating pedestrian right of way; and finally, the media’s story, which had taken the DA’s press releases and leaks and blown them out of proportion to fan the already-roaring flames of hatred toward cyclists.

The Huis got a large settlement—one that could have caused me complete financial ruin but, thanks to my insurance policy, didn’t—and I’m glad for them. The settlement jibed with Betty’s statement to the police, the DA’s charges, Terry Jr.’s understanding of the case, and it even mostly fit the media narrative. $2.1 million won’t end their tragedy or their suffering. $2.1 million won’t replace Sutchi Hui—nothing can or will.

This settlement released me from all future claims by the family, but it doesn’t absolve me of the burden I carry. It will, however, allow Betty to live more comfortably, and Terry Jr. perhaps to inherit something as well.

I have nothing other than sympathy and contrition for the Hui family, except of course for my one wish that none of this had ever happened.


Meanwhile, I’ve tried to focus on rebuilding my life, personally and professionally.

Every marriage ends for a million reasons, but the toll this accident and its aftermath had taken on us was too much to bear. Carroll and I filed for divorce amicably in 2017, remaining in close contact as we continue to raise our daughter Ashley together.

I took another software job at a company with an office in the financial district—ground zero for bike messengers. Every day I watch them ride on sidewalks, make every kind of illegal turn imaginable, hop over train tracks to weave in and out of traffic, and do track stands in the middle of intersections. I see them ride the wrong way on one-way streets, tearing through crosswalks, treating pedestrians like cones on a slalom course, middle fingers always at the ready.

As far as Gascón’s idea that my felony prosecution would serve as a serious warning to the city’s cyclists? Not so much.


On September 18, 2014—a little more than a year after my case came to a close—a cyclist in New York City’s Central Park collided with a pedestrian who was crossing the street in a crosswalk. Like me, Jason Marshall had been tracking his ride on Strava. He, too, tried to swerve to miss other people crossing the street, but still ended up running into a woman named Jill Tarlov. A few days later, Tarlov died of injuries sustained in the accident.

Like me, Marshall quickly became an international whipping boy for scofflaw cycling. Dozens of stories came out that sounded just like the ones about me. Marshall hadn’t written any loopy emails to friends and family, but popular opinion seemed just as mean and angry as it had been in my case—reckless cyclist, racing on Strava, hang him high. I wondered if he, too, would face vehicular manslaughter charges.

But Marshall was not charged for his role in the accident. In fact, he wasn’t even issued a traffic citation. Perhaps this is because the New York District Attorney knew that—as in my case—the pedestrians were trying to cross against a DON’T WALK signal and failed to yield the right of way to the cyclist.

Or perhaps the truth lies in something Gascon said in the final press conference he held about my case:

“You would probably have seen in many jurisdictions actually no prosecution at all. We would not be having this discussion. It would have simply been deemed an accident.”

An accident. After all, that’s what it was: a horrible, tragic accident.

But San Francisco’s DA decided otherwise—and if this kind of overreach doesn’t scare us all, it should.


On October 2, 2018, George Gascón announced he would not run for re-election, but will serve out the remainder of his term as District Attorney.


 

 

for Aaron


Asiye funzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu.

[Ah-see-yay foonzwa nah mama-ye who-foonzwa nah oolim-way-ngoo.]

That’s Swahili for “it takes a village to raise a child.” My name may be on the byline, but it took a village to raise me up from a dark place and help me get here.

First, I had to avoid jail time and financial ruin, which would not have been possible without the work of my legal team: Fred Levine, John Mason, Julie Salamon and the relentless, inimitable Ted Cassman, a man who earned his title of “the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area” many, many times over.

In the other corner, the man who had insisted I become a felon, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, provided the spark that ignited my inner activist. Though his political career may have come to an end, my desire to root out corruption will last a lifetime.

San Francisco is a special place, full of special places. One such place, the Twin Peaks Tavern, will always be extra-special to me. They had the foresight and cared enough about security to install a 360-degree outdoor surveillance rig, the camera that incidentally recorded a clear video of the entire accident. My experience with this case would have been radically different without that video. Defenseless, I would have literally been fed to the trolls on sfgate.com.

But not all media is the sensationalized garbage in the local papers and on the TV news.

Kashmir Hill (who at the time wrote for Forbes magazine) authored a detailed, factually-correct article about me, the only one of its kind.

Pianist Noam Eisen took the barebones score I wrote for the theme music and turned it into something masterful.

Terre Gorham, a stickler for all the details, did the copy editing.

Tara Austen Weaver, my developmental editor, found and extracted this story from the steaming pile of garbage I dumped on her. She taught me how to write all over again—by pointing out how I had made every mistake imaginable, and some mistakes no one could even have imagined. Tara was my Michelangelo. She chipped away everything that wasn’t David, getting rid of all the stone that was weighing this story down, at times even obscuring it completely. I could not have asked for a better ally. Nor could I have ever found anyone else smart enough to produce this narrative, but also brave enough to take on a subject matter of this kind.

Antoinette DiBona, Gary Brown, Bryan Gescuk, and Arnim Polster read early drafts and gave invaluable feedback.

Three cyclists, John Murphy, Dan Connelly, and Vitaly Gashpar wrote blog posts days after the accident to counter the prevailing media narrative. They turned out to be remarkably accurate, and none of them had even seen the video.

A handful of strangers, most of them also probably cyclists, came to my defense on Twitter and fought legions of trolls in the comment forums of local and national publications.

Lawrence Lessig took a break from saving the world to save me from myself—and to save this project. I am without words to describe the warmth of this man’s heart, the depths of his soul, and the endless reach of his generosity.

All of my friends and family listened to my ranting and raving for years about this. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to those of you who didn’t run away screaming. To those who did, I can’t say I blame you, and I beg your forgiveness.

Prince did what no one else could, and what nobody would do anyway even if they could. I hope someday I can be that hero for him—or for anyone.

I stole six good years from my wife and daughter. I can never give them back and I’m sorry.

The Huis suffered a grave, permanent loss and I am dreadfully sorry for my role in it. To Betty, Terry Jr., and the rest of the Hui family: I beg for your forgiveness and I want you to know that I think of you every day, especially so when I use the roads in San Francisco. I hope that we all—myself included—can do a better job keeping everyone safe. It’s a jungle out there.

And to Mr. Sutchi Hui: may you rest in peace. From what I’ve read about you, I know that you were a good and compassionate man, a proud grandfather and a friend and confidant to so many. I didn’t know you, but from what I do know, I suspect you wouldn’t have wanted this circus any more than I did.

Finally, thank you to everyone who found love in their hearts and responded and acted with kindness in the face of this terrible tragedy. I hope and pray that your turn to have an example made out of your actions never comes, but if it does, I promise to treat you with compassion—and never to take anything I ever read about you at face value—unless you, while of sound mind, wrote it or said it yourself.


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