Bikelash PART V: The Light

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 V: The Light

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

2 July 2012—95 days since the accident

Ted called shortly after lunch and wanted me in his office ASAP. As part of the criminal discovery process—in which each side of a legal conflict swaps their evidence with the other—he had finally received the surveillance video taken by the Twin Peaks Tavern from ADA Omid Talai. I begged him to tell me about it, but he insisted that I come in and look for myself. Because I was between jobs—indefinitely, perhaps—I was wearing colorful shorts and a grubby v-neck t-shirt, but I didn’t care. After an hour-long BART/bike trip that felt three times that long, I arrived at Ted’s office, my hair matted and jutting out from my bike helmet.

Attorney Julie Salamon led me upstairs. My bike shoes clicked up the staircase, which felt more lengthy than it had on previous trips. Julie’s excitement was bubbling over. She always seemed excited, but on this occasion, more so than usual.

“Have you guys seen it yet?” I asked.

“Ted and I have each watched it probably a dozen times,” Julie said. “It goes by really quickly, and it’s very confusing.” The young, articulate, and scorchingly-smart attorney beamed with excitement, smiling broadly and radiating a glowing confidence. In contrast, I stood in her office, feeling self-conscious about my ugly plaid shorts, sweat-soaked tee, and bike shoes.

Julie leaned over the desk, clutched a mouse, and pulled up a file in Windows Media Player. I thought about all the ink that had been spilled about this video—how I was crouched down and speeding; how I made no attempt to stop or avoid the accident; and how the crosswalk wasn’t all that crowded. Anticipation had me almost doubled over in pain. Are the prosecutors and the media right, or is this going to be the key to my exoneration?

I sat in the desk chair, but I was so eager, I barely touched the seat cushion.

On the glowing monitor, I saw a video looking exactly like this:

“Okay, Chris. I’m going to play the video for you. But first, bear with me while I explain what’s going on. It’s not obvious at first.”

“Okay,” I said, anxious to see it in motion.

 

“The dome-shaped camera captured a 360-degree view. The top looks north and east whereas the bottom screen gives a view of the south and the west, right up through the crosswalk where the accident takes place. Unfortunately, the WALK/DON’T WALK signal isn’t visible, so we can’t tell if the pedestrians were crossing lawfully with a WALK symbol or jaywalking against a DON’T WALK.”

“If that weird semicircle of gray pixels weren’t there, I bet we could see the WALK signal,” I pointed out. “It looks like it would be right behind that gray semicircle.”

“Yeah, that might be the case.”

“Do you think they altered the video, trying to hide the WALK indicator?”

“That’s ridiculous!” Ted barked as he stormed into the room, looking dashing in black jeans, a silver dress shirt, and his signature black Pumas. “The DA would get disbarred at best, maybe even charged with obstruction of justice. It would be patently unethical.”

“Oh, hi, Ted. You think that would be unethical?” I asked in mock disbelief. “You mean like the way Gascón made shit up about me and leaked it to the media?”

“What’s done is done, and you know there’s nothing we can do about that,” Ted snapped back, with a hint of a wry smile. Despite his response, I could tell that my sarcasm wasn’t lost on him. “Let’s stay focused on what’s important: the video.”

Julie continued, almost as if she had completed Ted’s thought.

“Nothing happens in the top part of the screen, so just watch the bottom part, where you’ll see three people start to cross…”

Julie continued talking for a bit, but I had stopped listening after she had told me not to watch the top part.

“Are you ready to see it?” she finally asked.

“I’m ready.”

Julie hit the play button, and I caught a glimpse of a light-blue streak going by and then a huge commotion of sorts taking place out of my peripheral vision, as my eyes scanned the verboten top half of the video, looking for clues—for something that would give me a way to see if the pedestrians crossed early. There were definitely no visible WALK signs—but, wait a minute! Is that a traffic light?

“Hold it! Stop it right there!”

She hit stop.

“I’m almost positive I can see a traffic light in the top half of the video!” I pointed to the top left corner. “Can you go back a bit and play it again?”

Julie backed the video up a bit, and I watched, mouth agape, while a traffic signal turned from green to yellow to red. Granted, it was hard to see at first, but one could not argue that the device depicted in the video—the one that turned green to yellow to red and back again while perched conspicuously atop a black post—was anything other than a traffic signal controlling northbound traffic on Castro Street as it crossed Market Street.

Small as it was, I could see it well enough in the video without even magnifying my screen. Thank god for video surveillance, I thought, never having been much of a fan of it in the past. This traffic light is going to save my ass.

As I watched the colors of the light change, I felt a path open up out of this place, this bottomless pit of fear, anger, and consternation—of lies, name-calling, and threats of incarceration—to a happier, more comprehensible reality. In this new reality, the traffic light in the video would—like the DNA evidence that sometimes exonerates a convict—most definitely set me free.

The following still images clearly show the light changing from green to yellow to red, from left to right:

 

 

 

 

Frame #4408                          Frame #4430                          Frame #4431
(last green)                                (first yellow)                             (first red)

Frame #4408 shows the last frame of the green light. Frame #4430 shows the last frame of the yellow light. And finally, frame #4431—the all important first frame of the red light.

I pored over the video, letting it play again and again. I found two other traffic lights—one in the northwest corner and one in the northeast corner, but they were even smaller and it was hard to make out the color of the lights as they changed. The traffic light depicted above—despite its odd positioning in the upper left corner of the video—sat on the southeast corner of the intersection, very close to the planters that separated Naked Guy Plaza from Castro Street. In fact, the only traffic light not visible in the video was the one in the southwest corner, which appeared to be cut off by the gray semicircle of pixels in the center.

Recalling the research I had done months ago, I knew that the lights at Castro and Market all fired on a constant-timed sequence—with a three-and-a-half-second yellow phase and a three-and-a-half-second “all red” phase—and that all the signals atop all the light poles always showed the same color of lights at the same time in the same direction. In other words, if any one of the four towers showed green in the north/south direction, they all showed green in the north/south direction. This, of course, meant that we only needed one traffic light to mark—with an accuracy down to fractions of a second—the very instant at which all the lights turned yellow, then red, and then, three and a half seconds later, the very instant the WALK symbol came on for the pedestrians. Stepping through the video frame by frame and using a little arithmetic, we could pinpoint the exact frame in which each of the lights—including the obscured WALK symbol—changed color.

Simultaneous streams of thoughts came rushing into my head, as if from different directions. Finding the traffic lights in the video creates enormous potential for us. Now that we have a traffic light, we can see, once and for all, what color the light was when I entered the intersection! We can show exactly how many people stepped into the crosswalk early—even how many seconds early. I wanted to get to work on that, starting with the red light, but something else troubled me.

How did the DAs and the police not see the traffic light? It’s the most important piece of information in this entire video, which is supposed to be their damning evidence. How could they possibly have missed it?

I swiveled around to face Ted and Julie, trouble weighing on my mind. “You guys have been following the media coverage. You know what the DA has been telling them: that I ran the red light, that the crosswalk wasn’t crowded, and that the pedestrians had the right of way and crossed with the favor of the light. I’m pretty sure we can use this traffic light to show that every single one of those things isn’t true. But why did they guess and arrive at the wrong conclusions, rather than simply using the light in the video?”

“It’s hard to know for sure, but my guess is that they came up with their conclusions first and then saw only what they wanted to see,” said Ted. “That you were going fast and that you hit Mr. Hui in a crosswalk. They didn’t care to look any further.”

“But, as with any accident, doesn’t fault come down to right of way?” I asked.

“Yes, of course it does, but they’re only looking at the evidence to show that you were at fault, just like you’re only looking at it to show that you weren’t.”

“That’s not right, Ted. You know what? It’s criminal! The traffic light is the key to my innocence. They’ve been sitting on exculpatory evidence this whole time and failing to see it.”

“I don’t think the DAs see it that way.”

“Like hell they don’t!” My blood had reached a steady boil. “Those fuckers want to put me in jail for six years, yet they’re holding my Get Out of Jail Free card right there in their own fucking evidence, and they’re refusing to look at it!”

“Settle down, Chris. Don’t assume their incompetence is malicious. It’s probably just incompetence. Stuff like this happens all the time. Julie and I watched the video at least two dozen times between us, and we didn’t see it either. Let’s take a bio break.”

Ted led me toward the restroom, his stride even and fast—like a runner’s—and even though he was walking, I struggled to keep up in my clunky bike shoes. What I knew of the legal world—from Law & Order and John Grisham novels—didn’t match up with what I was seeing in practice. The DA got behind a podium and held a press conference to tell the world I ran a red light. But he never even observed the traffic light in the video—in his own evidence—to find out whether I did or not! I stared into the mirror, only to find my disheveled hair and sweaty clothing staring back at me. I threw some cold water on my face. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the police and the DA hadn’t seen the traffic light.

Maybe this is exactly the break we need to put an end to this nonsense.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

2 July 2012—95 days since the accident

Ted and I rejoined Julie in her office. It was time to tear this video apart and extract everything it had to tell us about the accident. The video was in AVI format, a pseudo-standard that Microsoft invented in the early 1990s. The first step I took was to transfer the file onto my laptop and load it into QuickTime, a tool I knew how to use, at least at some level. I found that the video contained 6.2 frames per second, almost five times fewer frames than the popular standard for TV and movies. This meant we didn’t have much data we could actually use. Julie and I worked on the first task: figuring out where my bike was when the light turned red. Ted hovered over us, also anxious to see what conclusions we could draw, now that we could use the traffic light as a point of reference.

I focused on frames #4430 and #4431, the last frame of yellow and first frame of red, respectively. Now I just had to find the position of my bike—a task that proved harder than I had expected. First off, the camera (shown by a blue dot on the following diagram) was located in the southeast corner of the intersection, putting the northwest corner (where I first entered) at the far end of the camera’s range (shown roughly by a blue polygon). Additionally, the trees and shrubs lining Jane Warner Plaza—ostensibly put there to keep drivers from getting distracted by the naked men who grace it with their presence—also had the side effect of obscuring my position as I entered the intersection.

The dark gray shaded “area of detail” represents the bird’s-eye view of what’s shown in the following captures of frames #4428 through #4431—when I first entered the camera’s field of vision, looking through the trees in the plaza at the north end of the intersection.

To be considered “in” the intersection—for the purpose of defining whether I unlawfully ran the red light or entered lawfully on the yellow—the front wheel of my bike must have broken the invisible plane extending skyward from the limit line before the traffic signals display steady red circles. Put differently, the vehicle code allows vehicles to enter an intersection lawfully on a yellow light—even a very late yellow light. It even allows vehicles to enter lawfully on a light that’s in the process of changing from yellow to red, because a light changing from yellow to red does not meet the “steady circular red signal” criterion. In other words, tie goes to the runner.

It’s a good thing that I have the favor of the tie, I thought, as I used the arrow keys to flip back and forth from frame to frame showing the light changing from yellow to red and back to yellow, back and forth, to and fro. I followed the thirty-odd black and blue pixels that represented me and my bike entering the intersection, going forward and then backward over the white lines faintly visible on the pavement. The very first thing I noticed was that my position, relative to the changing of the light, was a lot closer to the north end of the intersection than I had originally thought. Even though it was very close, it seems I still managed to make it into the intersection before the light changed.

Unfortunately, it was really hard to determine my exact position relative to the white lines on the pavement—the limit line and the top and bottom boundaries of the northern crosswalk—but it was pretty clear that I crossed at least one of them before the signal changed to a steady red, which is all that it takes for my behavior on that day to be considered lawful, at least with respect to the color of the light.

#4428 (yellow)——#4429 (yellow) ———#4430 (yellow) ——#4431 (red)

That said, there are arguments that can be made about whether my behavior—going through a stale yellow light—was safe, “defensive” cycling. Clearly it was not, because there was a collision. But we did have confirmation now that I followed the law when I entered the intersection, so I felt entitled to a little self-righteous indignation.

“Do you guys believe me now?” I asked Ted and Julie.

“I always believed your light was yellow,” said Ted.

“Now let’s see about those pedestrians,” remarked Julie, eager for another challenge.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

2 July 2012—95 days since the accident

Determining if the pedestrians crossed early—when compared to the photo finish of the red light—turned out to be really straightforward. We just needed to count exactly seven whole seconds from the moment the light turned yellow—three and a half seconds for the yellow phase plus three and a half for the “all red”—which would then indicate exactly when the DON’T WALK indicator in their direction would have begun to display WALK. There is a clock embedded in the video, but because the entire incident covered only about three seconds, we needed something more granular to help us with this one. So we decided to count 43.4 frames (6.2 frames/second x seven seconds).

The light first turned yellow at frame #4409. Forty-two frames later—barely one frame (and a bit) before the WALK indicator illuminates—we paused and found this chilling image, frame #4451.

The scene depicted the state of the southern crosswalk right before the indicator changed from DON’T WALK to WALK.

I counted seven people in the crosswalk already—eight if you included the guy north of the northern boundary of the crosswalk—so, eight people moving at different speeds—none of whom should have been anywhere but standing on the sidewalk because they hadn’t received their WALK symbol yet.

Frame #4451 also shows me on my bike and then, from right to left, Mrs. Hui (in pink) and Mr. Hui (in black) crossing from west to east, while a woman crossing from east to west has already covered three-quarters of the length of the crosswalk. This meant that between the westbound walker and the Huis, I had a gap, but it was rapidly closing, which left me with no escape. My memory recalled a crowd of pedestrians closing in on me, yet the “information” leaked by the anonymous source in the DA’s office stated that the crosswalk only had three or four people in it. Crowded is, of course, a subjective term: From my point of view, eight people moving at different speeds in a forty-six-foot-wide space meets or exceeds my definition of the word “crowded.”

So there I was, in the video, facing an impossible situation. I was moving quickly—too quickly to stop safely in such a short distance—though not quickly enough to make it through before the pedestrians converged from the left and the right. And about these pedestrians: What on earth were they doing there?

I understand—and often act upon—the temptation to jaywalk. But these people jaywalked carelessly, without heeding the DON’T WALK symbol and without checking to see if the intersection was clear. Or, if they did check, they certainly didn’t see or hear me. Mr. and Mrs. Hui were trying to catch a bus, but why was that one crosser from the east in such a hurry that she ended up halfway into my lane—75% of the way across the intersection—before the WALK symbol came on?

In a weird touch of tragic irony, the point of impact (frame #4452, below) lined up almost perfectly with the timing of the WALK symbol turning on. In other words, had everyone simply waited for the WALK, I would have cleared the intersection, well on my way toward 18th Street so I could kiss my daughter on the head and send her off to school. Meanwhile, the Huis probably would have boarded the 24 Divisadero bus (shown in the foreground of the video) so they could pick up those eyeglasses and go about their day.

Regarding the Huis: Something else important happened in frame #4451, one frame before impact. The Huis’ legs bend at weird angles in different directions, making it appear that, at the very last instant, they did see or hear me and then did something unpredictable—like lunging in one direction or another. This probably upped the chance of a collision from very high to inevitable.

“Guys, I didn’t stand a chance. That woman from the Castro Theatre side got off the bus and charged across the intersection. She was halfway into my lane when the Huis started crossing—look how long her strides are! She’s speed-walking, for crissake! There was nothing I could have done to avoid her that wouldn’t have resulted in hitting Sutchi or Betty. My yellow light was close, I’ll admit that. But this suicidal crossing dance was the opposite of close! That woman who scurried off the bus and the other people in the crosswalk, including the Huis, who crossed more than two seconds early—they caused this accident, more than anything else.”

I had been hearing the words “avoidable” and “preventable” tossed around in the media for months now, in blogs and in comments, as sidelong condemnations of my actions. Viewing the video footage now, I could see that the people who said this were almost right—the accident most definitely could have been avoided: if the pedestrians had waited for the WALK symbol.

Ted and Julie shared my disbelief in what we were seeing unfold in the video.

Floored by the devil-may-care crossing behavior of these pedestrians, I decided I needed to collect more data points. I recorded the frame number in which each person in the crosswalk started crossing. The first WALK frame lands almost halfway between #4452 and #4453, but I gave pedestrians the benefit of the doubt by saying the WALK sign illuminated at the start of frame #4452. By subtracting the frame at which they entered the crosswalk from #4452 and then dividing by 6.2 (the frame rate), I could calculate how many seconds early each pedestrian crossed.

The above frame, #4452, the first frame in which the WALK symbol appeared, shows the impact, which occurred between the Huis crossing from the west and the tall dark-haired woman crossing from the east, sandwiching me between them. This woman crossed almost fourteen seconds before the WALK indicator turned on. The improbable combination of my entering the intersection on a late yellow and eight jaywalkers crossing my path—while my speed was too fast to stop safely, yet too slow to clear the intersection before the pedestrians converged upon me—proved lethal.

Finally, we noted when east/west vehicle traffic started moving into the intersection; we hypothesized that the start of vehicle traffic movement would fall somewhere between one-half to one-and-a-half seconds after the green lights and WALK symbols appear (which happen at the same time). Sure enough, eight frames (or 1.3 seconds) elapsed before the first east and westbound vehicles started to show signs of forward motion.

The video had already proven incredibly valuable in showing that my light was still yellow when I entered and that eight pedestrians jaywalked, crossing between 0.5 and 13.9 seconds before the WALK indicator turned on, which ended up putting me, the Huis, and the other pedestrians at grave risk—with fatal consequences.

But there was even more that this video had to tell us.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

2 July 2012—95 days since the accident

Thirteen days after the accident, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross said they had consulted with an anonymous “law enforcement source” who claimed to have watched the video—this same video we now had access to. This was the very same video that Inspector Dean Taylor said had been taken from his locked filing cabinet. I had wondered if the leaker might be police captain Denis O’Leary, who had told the TV news that he was going to arrest me, even though I had already agreed to self-surrender. But really, I had no idea who the mole might be. What I did have now was the video.

I had been aching for almost three months to find out if the report from Matier & Ross’s “law enforcement source” had any relation to the evidence on display in the video. It always felt like Matier & Ross sprinkled in tiny specks of truth to make their more outlandish claims just believable enough. While Ted and Julie may have had larger motivations, the first thing I wanted to see was if the information leaked to the press lined up with what was actually on the video, because it certainly didn’t line up with my memory of that morning.

According to Matier & Ross, “The video shows Sutchi Hui of San Bruno and his wife stepping into the intersection at Castro and Market streets just as Chris Bucchere rides in from the north side.”

My calculations had the Huis entering a little over two seconds before the WALK symbol came on. I entered about three and a half seconds before (right at the end of the yellow and the beginning of the “all red”).

Clearly the “law enforcement source” didn’t inspect the video frame by frame because—had he done so—he would have known that the Huis started entering the crosswalk about a second and a half after I entered the intersection. Matier & Ross also didn’t mention the tall woman in my lane, and the man with the bag—or any of the other people crossing east to west, some of whom started crossing more than ten seconds early. Moreover, the video reinforced what I already knew: I had entered lawfully on a late yellow, and the Huis, and a half-dozen other people, all started crossing, willy-nilly, half a second to almost fourteen seconds before they got their WALK symbol.

Matier & Ross also quoted their source as saying, “The biker is going fast and looks like he is hunched down. He hits the victim dead-on. There is never a moment where he looks like he is trying to slow down.”

I don’t want to get too hung up on subjective definitions of “fast,” but after making the yellow light, it was in my best interest to move through the intersection quickly. Was I speeding? I don’t know for sure. I certainly might have been going faster than 25 mph on parts of the descent or while traversing the intersection itself. But my speed—somewhere in the mid-twenties or even in the low thirties—would have been similar to the speed of many cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles that traverse that intersection every day. Unfortunately for me, no cars passed through the intersection at the same time, leaving no frame of reference to judge my speed.

As for “hunched down:” My road bike, which I was riding that morning, has a set of brifters (a portmanteau of “brake lever” and “shifter”) mounted in the “drops,” which are the lowest, most forward-facing portions of the handlebars. The instant I sensed an emergency situation unfolding before me, I plunged my hands into the drops and wrapped my fingers around both brifters, braking hard—but not so hard that I would lose control of my bike. In doing so, I instinctively shifted my weight back, so I could pull hard on the front brake. Not using my body weight in this way would have probably sent me flying over the handlebars.

With my hands in the drops and my rear-end over the seat, I certainly appeared to be “hunched down.” But this wasn’t because I wanted to go faster—I was crouched down so that I could apply the brakes heavily without losing control of my bike.

This is a perfect example of why it it’s problematic for anonymous law enforcement officials to speak to the media: One, they shouldn’t be talking to the media about an in-progress investigation; two, they have no idea what they’re talking about as it pertains to cycling.

According to Matier & Ross’s source, “The video shows only three or four people in the crosswalk when the collision occurred.”

I counted eight. Technically, though eight people were crossing, only seven did so in a crosswalk, because one person—the gentleman to the right of the man with the bag—was a couple of feet north of the crosswalk. Because he too was heading directly toward my anticipated vector, I would say there were eight people in the crosswalk. That’s twice the number of people the source claimed.

One thing the video did not show was whether the light was red or yellow when I entered the intersection. “The light was out of the camera’s view,” said the source.

This untruth was probably just an oversight. The source probably didn’t see the lights. It doesn’t appear as though the ADAs saw them either.

“He hits the victim dead-on,” the source said. “There is never a moment where he looks like he is trying to slow down.”

My last memory of the accident is as follows: The left side of my body and head slammed into the pavement. In my mind—and based on my injuries—I turned this into a story of how I “laid it down” and “plowed through the crowded crosswalk.” Fewer pharmaceuticals and one less massive blow to the head and I might have said something more like, “I did everything I could to avoid the pedestrians, but in the end, I could not and did not.” Watching the video, it doesn’t look like I “laid it down.”

It does look, however, like I gave it a try. Looking closely at the last four frames before impact (as seen below in chronological order), shows that I made at least two evasive maneuvers to supplement the hard braking I described above.

In the first frame, my bike has an even keel, indicating that I’m going straight. In the second frame, more of my black arm-warmer is showing, indicating that I’m turning to the right, most likely because I had seen the tall woman who crossed from the east and was now walking briskly on a collision course with me. The third frame is perhaps the most telling. In this frame, my body and bike lean sharply to the left, perhaps because I had seen that trying to avoid the tall woman from the east put me on a different collision course, this time with the Huis. This was the last move I remember—sending myself and my bike into the pavement—“laying it down.”

But in the fourth frame, two events happened that I didn’t remember: 1) I pulled up out of my port-side dive, sending me away from the tall woman coming from the east and straight toward Mr. Hui; and 2) what little ability I had to avoid the jaywalking pedestrians became further compromised in that Mr. and Mrs. Hui appear to be lunging, perhaps because they finally did see or hear me—but at this point, it was all too late.

In seeing the video, I realized that my only hope of making it through the intersection accident-free that morning was attempting to squeeze through the closing gap of people by going as quickly as possible. Sadly, all my braking and evasive maneuvers right before impact might have contributed more toward the accident than anything else—except, of course, for the eight pedestrians crossing against a solid DON’T WALK indicator.

I don’t know if it would have been possible to “shoot the gap”—I would have had to do all the physics/math in my head in a fraction of a second and then pull off a miracle. Despite what the papers said, I don’t have the bravado and reckless stupidity to attempt a maneuver like that. Plus, last-minute movements by the Huis threw another wrench into the works.

At this point, Ted, Julie, and I were mentally exhausted. The video would undoubtedly yield more useful information the more we analyzed it, but not now because our heads were spinning in three different directions.

One thing on which we all agreed: It was time to circle the wagons and put together a sound strategy for taking all of these discoveries back to the prosecutors.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

7 July 2012—100 days since the accident

From: Chris Bucchere

To: Ted W. Cassman

Cc: Julie Salamon

Ted and Julie—here is a bit of perspective to help you frame your initial discussions with Omid. I would like to go in with the position that my family and I want a complete dismissal of all charges and a public apology from the DA.

Seven pedestrians, including Mr. and Mrs. Hui, crossed before the walk indicator causing me to wreck my bike while trying to avoid them and rendering me unconscious for at least ten minutes.

From the first article in the media, I was wrongly accused of running a red light and speeding. No mention of the jaywalking was ever made.

Since the accident I have incurred almost $50,000 of expenses (in legal fees and the bail bond), I’ve spent a day a jail during booking and I’ve been hounded by the media, who have printed innumerable false statements by the DA and members of the police department.

All the media attention has caused me to lose my job and now I can’t find another one (for the same reason). My wife, six-year-old daughter, and I have received death threats and have spent thousands of additional dollars on security measures to protect ourselves. To compound this, my wife is now bedridden with a stress-related medical condition as a result of these circumstances.

The permanent damage the DA and the media have done to me and my family will cause continued suffering over the long haul and it’s hard to even anticipate what sort of horrible thing will happen next.

Ever since a post-concussion, drugged-out email of my own composition made its way from my computer to the New York Times, I had made a habit of giving every message one extra read, asking myself, “How would this email fare if it went viral?” It was during the extra read of the above note that I noticed an unintended tone—a tone rife with defiance and resolve—yet also riddled with despair and fear of what was to come. It had the ring of a man not yet broken, but precipitously bent.

It was here at the precipice—at the verge of snapping—that I finally caught a break.

Finally, I could prove my innocence—based on that one traffic light in the video.

The end of this nightmare finally seemed near.


>> Continue to PART VI: The Waiting


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash PART IV: Cooperating with the Authorities

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 IV: Cooperating with the Authorities

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

13 June 2012—76 days since the accident

Carroll, Ashley, and I were slowly beginning to adapt to life on the run, trying to leave no trace of our whereabouts. I paid for everything in cash. An acquaintance of mine sold me a police scanner and helped me program it. If anyone was coming for me or my family, I wanted to be the first to know. Despite our precautions, we were too scared to be anywhere near our home, or even within the jurisdiction of the SFPD.

Each time my phone buzzed with an IFTTT alert, I had that sinking feeling in my chest: Would we be sleeping in our own beds tonight, or would we be forced to hit the road?

With the news of my impending “arrest” and booking/arraignment still smelling like fresh meat to the media, I had to be on high alert. I went back to Ted’s office, and he called Inspector Cadigan to arrange the details of my arrest. He put her on speaker. The inspector advised me to use the side entrance to the Hall of Justice. She instructed me to wait inconspicuously in a discreet employee parking lot. She said to arrive at 10 a.m. and call her to come and escort me inside. And she said I should wear a baseball cap.

This whole notion of being “booked” was very foreign to me, but apparently it’s something that the police must do to every person accused of a serious crime. The media seemed to think this was a big deal, as there were several print, internet, and TV news stories explaining this process and how it applied to me. To Vinnie, the bail bondsman, and to Ted, my attorney, this was just a matter of procedure, but not so with the local journalists.

With the prying eyes of the media upon us, we weren’t taking any chances. Carroll, Ashley, and I were hopping from one budget hotel in the East Bay to another on the Peninsula and back again. Ashley asked why we were going on so many “vacations.”

“Because everybody needs a getaway, darling. Aren’t we having so much fun?” I asked, casting a sideways glance at Carroll.

On the evening before the booking, I drove my family through Berkeley while Carroll tried to find us a place to stay for the night. The U.S. Open golf championship was in town that week, so she was having a difficult time. We spent more than an hour meandering about the East Bay as Carroll tried hotel after hotel. Finally, I decided that it was time to call in a favor.

My first call was to an old pal. Clint Lockyer and his wife, Estella, said they would be happy to welcome the three of us into their home. We had a place to stay for the night.

At sixty-eight years old, Clint was the person with whom I had my longest-lasting friendship. We met when I was six, shortly after my parents and I moved to a small neighborhood nestled in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, about thirty miles from San Francisco.

Soon after we had settled in, Clint became our family’s primary care physician, and his former wife, Pollyanna, became our eye doctor. He and his buddies were avid mountain bikers, and Clint taught me how to ride. Under his guidance, we romped along the trails of not only Diablo and Trampas, but ventured out to Tilden Park, China Camp, and up to Lake Tahoe. To me, Clint was more like a stepfather than a friend.

That night, when Clint and Estella turned on the 10 o’clock news, the lead story was about me. I began to flush as the skin on the back of my neck prickled with embarrassment and outrage. I wondered what my lifelong friend and his wife believed as they watched this garbage. Was it different because they knew me? What about people who didn’t know me? They only know the narrative that makes me out to be a monster.

Again I experienced the unsettling feeling of living in two different worlds. On TV, a renegade cyclist was still on the lam; tomorrow he would be hauled in for his booking/arraignment. There was a quote from Randy Ang’s attorney, Tony Brass, about how this cycle-terrorist should be punished for his crimes and how the fact that Ang “stayed at the scene and cooperated with authorities made all the difference.”

As if I had much of a choice, having been taken away from the scene in an ambulance.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

14 June 2012—77 days since the accident

The next morning in Clint and Estella’s living room, the announcer on the morning newscast sounded very concerned. Oakland was on fire, she said. A big construction site close to the West Oakland station had gone up in flames. BART—the rapid transit train I was planning on taking from Walnut Creek to San Francisco—wasn’t running west of downtown. It was seven o’clock. In three hours, Inspector Cadigan would be expecting me to show up at the Hall of Justice and turn myself in.

Clint dropped me off at the Walnut Creek BART station and wished me good luck. I rode BART to downtown Oakland’s 12th Street Station, which on that day more closely resembled the Oakland Zoo. Everywhere I looked, people were running around, trying to find a way to get to San Francisco. A few hundred of them had formed a mob around some sort of charter bus that could probably hold about forty. I now had just over two hours to get to the Hall of Justice, and I didn’t see any options.

I started walking west toward Jack London Square, where I knew there would be at least one passenger ferry to San Francisco. After about a block, I broke into a light jog and worked my way up into a brisk run. When I reached the ferry terminal, there were several hundred people waiting in line for the next boat, which had a capacity of probably around a hundred. From the ferry building, I’d have about a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk to the Hall of Justice, so I still had a chance of showing up for my arrest and incarceration more or less on time.

All of a sudden, one of my worst fears was realized. TV news crews descended upon the long line of waylaid commuters. The fire, BART closure, bridge traffic, and the congestion at the ferry terminal made great fodder for the morning news and, as a result, my cover was about to be blown.

Trying to act as naturally as I could, I turned in such a way that none of the cameras could see my face. I grabbed my pay-as-you-go phone, put it up to my ear, and answered an imaginary call, just so I could think. My eyes darted about the ferry plaza looking for a place to hide. With some semblance of a plan in my head, I put the phone away and started to chat up the guy behind me. He was a rather friendly French software developer in town for a conference. Once we chit-chatted for a bit, I popped the question: “Hey, would you mind holding my place in line?”

I knew the cameras were rolling because I could hear the newscaster right behind me: “There are thousands of people in line waiting for ferries that aren’t here. This has people wondering, ‘Will we ever make it to work?’” I tried to focus on my plan. It was time to make my move. I slinked off toward the restroom.

Once I found a place where I could think, something occurred to me: No one knows that I’m here. The media crews that wanted to film my surrender were waiting for me at the Hall of Justice, if they were anywhere at all. I had managed to strip down every photo and nearly every video of myself from the internet, so no one would recognize me. Plus, I had the world’s greatest disguise—a baseball cap—at the ready.

Gaining my composure, I straightened up my shoulders, walked right back into the fray, and gave my best merci to the Frenchman. Then I turned toward the news cameras and I smiled and waved, because that’s what everyone else was doing.

I boarded the ferry with a throng of antsy commuters, many of whom were calling their offices and rearranging their schedules. Having dodged a bullet with the TV news, I started to worry again about my other problem. There was a warrant out for my arrest. I promised self-surrender at 10 a.m. I didn’t have a very good frame of reference for criminal proceedings, but I imagine that if you promise to turn yourself in and then don’t show up, all sorts of bad things start to happen.

On the upper deck of the ferry, I bumped into an old colleague of mine. After imploring him not to share this with anyone, I told him that I was off to be arrested on felony manslaughter charges. By his reaction, I could tell that he thought I was joking. I wished I had been.

As a regular ferry rider, my friend had a large booklet of tickets. I bought two from him with the twenty-dollar bill I had tucked next to my driver’s license in my back pocket, one of my few possessions. I gave one ticket to the Frenchman and thanked him again for helping me out. I now had about forty minutes to get to the Hall of Justice.

CHAPTER THIRTY

14 June 2012—77 days since the accident

It was 9:45 a.m. by the time I arrived at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. In my pocket I had a few remaining dollars, my driver’s license, and a cheap flip-phone registered under a fake name. I didn’t even consider hailing a taxi, not that I could have found one amid what was probably the most insane commute day since the BART strikes of the late 1990s.

I started to run, making a beeline for the Hall of Justice, which lies about two miles from the Ferry Building. Inspector Cadigan was expecting me at ten. Given that I left San Ramon—a mere thirty miles from San Francisco—almost three hours ago, it was hard to believe that I was in danger of missing my appointment for self-surrender.

As I ran down Howard Street, I tried to avoid thinking about all the horrible things bound to happen if I showed up late for my arrest. Plus, there was this puzzling “baseball cap” business. Why had Inspector Cadigan asked me to bring a baseball cap? Was it supposed to be some sort of disguise? Or was it supposed to help me stand out, so she could lead me into some kind of trap?

I had trusted the inspector in the hospital, but now I wasn’t sure who to trust. I quickly pushed those worries out of my head because I had a list of bigger things to worry about. At the top of that list was the outstanding warrant for my arrest. Next was that I was still two miles from where I needed to be to turn myself over to the authorities.

The fire in West Oakland made for the opposite of a slow news day and the press had more interesting things to cover than my impending incarceration. As I ran, I appreciated this little dose of good fortune. When I was within a few long SOMA blocks of the jail, I stopped, caught my breath, and called Prince. As promised, he was waiting outside of the Hall of Justice, wearing a baseball cap.

Prince stands about five feet ten inches tall and weighs around 165 pounds. He’s taller, slimmer, and much better built than I am, but with his dark skin and hair, he could potentially be mistaken for me, perhaps if you squint your eyes a bit. Given that I had disappeared myself and my family from the internet just after news of the story broke, there remained a few scant images and videos of me online. Most of them depicted me seventy pounds heavier with a different haircut and facial hair configuration, so most people would be pretty hard-pressed to pick me out of a crowd. And that is precisely why Inspector Cadigan’s “wear a baseball cap” struck me as highly suspicious. With his shoulder-length hair tied up and wearing that aforementioned baseball cap, Prince spent the morning loitering around the Hall of Justice as my near-perfect media decoy, looking as conspicuous as he could.

The plan was simple enough: Prince would give me the lay of the land and, if there were any media personnel anywhere in my path to the Hall of Justice, he would draw them away from me, goad them as much as he could, and then, once I was safely inside, he would take off his baseball cap, unfurl his giant Kenyan mane, and answer their questions—in Swahili.

Prince stood near the entrance of a small parking lot nestled in between the west side of the Hall of Justice and the jail. As I came within a few hundred yards, he turned south, walked to the corner of Bryant Street, and then turned left and walked east toward the main front stairs. If the media were looking for the brown-skinned man in the baseball cap heading toward the Hall of Justice, there he was.

Meanwhile, I walked briskly past the spot where Prince had been standing. I ducked between two parked cars in the employee lot and knelt down where no one could see me. I pulled the baseball cap out from where I had tucked it inside the waist of my pants. Exhaling deeply, I put the cap on my head and dialed Inspector Cadigan’s number. It was nearly 10:30. I had been traveling—by car, train, ferry, and foot—for three and a half hours. This was the first time I had sat down since I disembarked from BART in downtown Oakland—a lifetime ago.

Moments later, a tall, strapping black man in plain clothes opened the side door and asked me to step inside. Inspector Cook led me down a hallway toward SFPD’s Hit and Run Investigation Unit.

“Of course it wasn’t a hit and run; that’s just what they call our unit,” Inspector Cadigan had told me, in what now seemed like a dream. But this was no dream. It was a nightmare.

And it had only just begun.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

14 June 2012—77 days since the accident

I followed Inspector Cook down a short hallway and into a small room crammed with cubicles. Inspector Cadigan swung around in her chair to greet me. As she stood and took my outstretched hand, I took note of her black sweater, black jeans, and black boots. I vaguely recalled our initial meeting in the hospital, where I sat on a bed in a post-concussion fog. “I’m just going to ask you a few questions,” she had told me. “This will only take a minute or two. This is no big deal.”

I had looked into her kind eyes then, as I did now. I had trusted her. I had believed her. How could I have been such a fool?

As I shook her hand, not a word was exchanged between us. There was so much I wanted to say. But there was something in Inspector Cadigan’s eyes that hadn’t been there when we met in the hospital. There was sadness. Her lips curled into a frown and she spoke slowly and deliberately.

“Chris, I am so, so sorry about all of this.”

I breathed in and opened my mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. Had I said anything, it wouldn’t have mattered, because just then Inspector Dean Taylor—Inspector Cadigan’s boss—interjected.

“Look here, son. It’s a good thing I gave this case to Lori. Because if this was my case, I would’ve retired!” Inspector Taylor spoke with the slightest remnant of an Irish accent. Or maybe it was the type of accent that remains in hiding until anger causes just a smidge of it to show through.

He rolled his chair closer to where I was standing. I had just released Inspector Cadigan’s hand. She sat down and motioned to me to do the same. Inspector Taylor had delivered quite a hook with that “I would’ve retired” line, so he had my full attention. Sliding his reading glasses down the bridge of his nose, he pointed at a gunmetal gray file cabinet.

“You see that? That cabinet? That drawer right there? We had the only DVD of the accident video locked right in there. No one had seen the video but Lori and me. Not a soul but Lori and me! Then the DA’s office spoke to the media about what happens in the video. And then? And then they blamed the whole thing on us! On the police. On my department.”

I nodded. Again, I dug deep, searching for the right thing to say and came up empty. Good thing, because Inspector Taylor wasn’t finished.

“It’s not fair what’s happening to you, Chris. Really, it’s not fair. It’s bowlshit. What the DA’s doing to you? That’s bowlshit. What the media’s doing to you? Bowlshit!”

The more Inspector Taylor got spun up, the more his accent showed through. He moved his finger from the direction of the file cabinet, pointed it directly at me, and continued.

“This was a routine accident and it shoulda been handled as such. We process dozens of cases like this every year. If you was in a car, no charges woulda been filed. This is all bowlshit! Complete bowlshit.”

Suddenly, Inspector Cadigan’s eyes darted up and focused directly on Inspector Taylor’s. She tilted her head to one side, pushed a few strands of hair off of her forehead, cleared her throat, and gave Inspector Taylor a death-stare. Clearly, she was warning him to stop talking. But this was her boss, so there was no way she could say anything, especially with me sitting right there.

With the air getting heavier and heavier amid the staring contest I was witnessing between Inspector Taylor and Inspector Cadigan, I struggled to think of something to say, something to break the ice.

“Would you be willing to go on the record about any of this?” I asked with a sheepish grin. I wanted Inspector Taylor to think I was just kidding. But, of course, I wasn’t.

“Well, I’m close to retiring, my boy—but not that close,” Inspector Taylor said with a hearty chuckle. And with that, he spun his chair back around, pushed his reading glasses up the bridge of his nose, and dove back into whatever it is an inspector does.

I nodded, feeling defeated. But at the same time, new energy welled up inside me. I could feel the back of my neck starting to get hot. Inspector Taylor might not be willing to testify or speak to the media about this, but knowing that the SFPD thought I was getting a raw deal gave me more reasons to suspect that the DA wasn’t playing fair.

Inspector Taylor had said his piece; now Inspector Cadigan was doing the talking.

“We’re going to walk you over to the jail together. Before we go inside, I have to handcuff you.”

I handed her a bag containing my ID, my pay-as-you-go flip phone, a few dollars, and the cap I had borrowed from Clint.

Then Inspector Cadigan cuffed me behind my back and led me to jail.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

14 June 2012—77 days since the accident

The first thing I found out about being in jail was that I wasn’t actually in jail. I was in a holding pen of sorts inside or adjacent to the jail—where people get booked. Basically, it’s like the DMV—a bunch of cubes chock-full of government employees with bad attitudes and a ring around them of disheveled, miserable people looking even more disgusted than the employees do about having to be in this awful place.

This strange sort-of-jail was crawling with all sorts of people in uniform, most of them probably sheriff deputies. As is the case with the DMV, the goal of the “customer” here is to get the hell out as quickly as possible without pissing anyone off. But unlike the DMV, which makes people wait, sitting uncomfortably close to one another on rows of chairs buckled together, here they make people wait in soundproof, locked cells, alone.

In this tiny cell, I had a narrow bench I could sit on and a toilet with a half wall in front of it. I took a piss, the half wall obscuring my business but not the upper half of my body. It felt weird, but so did everything about this experience. I flushed the toilet. Water also came out of the sink, so I rinsed my hands and face. There was no soap. I took a drink of the water from my hand. Then, since I had pretty much exhausted all of the things I could do in this pen of mine, I rolled up my sweater to form a makeshift neck pillow, and I laid down on my back and closed my eyes.

Fingerprinting. It was time for fingerprinting. Somebody led me over to a gentleman who greeted me pleasantly with an accent I thought I recognized.

“Are you Bahamian or Jamaican?” I asked. I spent a year living on Grand Bahama Island as a kid, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Bahamians, some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I knew he was a West Indian Islander, but I couldn’t nail the island.

“Very good guesses. I’m a Creole from Haiti.”

This trilingual islander—hours away from the end of his sixteen-hour shift—was patient enough to tell me all about the fingerprinting process as he gently pressed my hands against the glass while images of my fingerprints turned up on screen. I had my mug shots taken too. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and strung out, but the simple motions of doing something helped break up the monotony.

After fingerprinting, I was put in a group cell, where I sat, head in hand, again not really knowing what to do with myself. This larger group cell also sported a telephone. I played around with it a bit; it had this foreboding voice-intro loop that warned the receiving party that they were about to get a call from an SF county jail inmate, giving them the option to drop the call.

After who knows how long—maybe an hour, maybe two or three—a young Caucasian woman in a sweatshirt came calling for me. “It’s time to getcha outta here,” she said with a half smile. “We just need to wrap up some paperwork and then you can go.” That meant the $150,000 bail had been processed and that they had received confirmation that my fingerprints hadn’t resulted in arrest warrants from Interpol or whatever. The woman left, and I continued to wait.

The minutes turned into hours. Suddenly, a black man in a blue uniform holding a small brown bag walked by the holding pen. I jumped up and hurled myself at the door, knocking wildly. The deputy opened the little slot so we could hear one another through the soundproof wall.

“Whaddya want?” he asked. I had a feeling that whatever I wanted, I wasn’t going to get it.

“Well, this nice woman in a white sweatshirt came over and told me I could go. But that was more than an hour ago and I’m still here.”

“Hmmmmm, let’s see. You want to go, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s nice. But do you see this bag of coffee?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, making coffee is important. You, on the other hand, are not important. Do you understand?”

With that, the little window snapped shut.

Finally, a deputy arrived and cooly told me that my time here would soon come to an end. Officer Kim led me back to where I had started my day, when I walked past the front desk. We passed the intake nurse and a few other desk workers. Officer Kim directed me to sign some documents, as he stepped around the office partition to a small desk. After signing one of the documents and feeling a bit uncomfortable about where to put my hands, I rested them, slightly folded on the counter, and leaned forward and crossed my legs.

At that moment, another man in uniform sauntered out of the nearby breakroom, pointed aggressively at me, and barked, “Get your hands off the table!”

I gently lifted up my hands and held them over my shoulders, palms facing Officer Kim.

But the angry cop wasn’t finished.

“What do you think this is, a bank or something?”

I did not respond.

“Put your hands down! By your side!”

I put my hands down by my side, feeling the tension build up inside me and trying desperately to figure out how to make the officer stop.

“Not like that! Like a normal person,” he growled.

He sneered the word “normal,” as if to imply that I had never heard it before or could possibly comprehend what it meant. I relaxed my arms a bit. And then, this civil servant took a few steps closer, looked me squarely in the eye, pointed at me with his index finger, and said slowly and provocatively.

“You look like an idiot.”

I turned to face the officer of the peace, and I stared at him with a puzzled look. I didn’t know what to say.

Trying to keep in mind what Vinnie the bail bondsman had advised, I said nothing. Vinnie knows best.

At this point, the angry cop stormed off and returned to eating cake and drinking coffee in the breakroom.

I turned back to face Officer Kim and politely asked, “There’s just one more quick thing before I leave: Could I please have the name and badge number of the officer who was just here?”

“Yeah, you can,” Officer Kim said.

“Can I have it now?”

“I said I would give it to you!” Officer Kim was visibly annoyed. His brows were furrowed, and his face was turning red.

“Yes, you said you would give it to me,” I said slowly and calmly.

There was a pregnant pause, and then I was escorted into an airlock. Because there was a big sign that read, “WAIT BEHIND THE RED LINE,” I dared not do anything other than wait behind the red line. Suddenly, two deputies escorted a four-person chain gang in orange jumpsuits into the airlock to join me. Then the deputies uncuffed the prisoners’ wrists and unshackled their ankles. This was the first time during my booking that I was in a room with real prisoners. If booking was Level One, these guys looked like they were Level Eleven. Orange jumpsuits, cuffs, shackles, and everything. I felt petrified, afraid to move a single muscle. I was outnumbered, but that hardly mattered. They were all very large and mean-looking, and any one of them could have easily beaten me to a pulp.

Suddenly, a buzzer inside the airlock rang, nearly giving me a heart attack. One of the inmates—the meanest and scariest looking of them all—looked directly at me and kindly said, “I think that’s for you, sir,” while he politely pushed the door open. I thanked him and walked through.

My jail experience, however, was not yet complete. On the outside of the buzzing door, behind a thick wall of glass, stood Officer Kim and one extremely red-in-the-face officer, arms crossed in defiance.

“So, you want my name and badge number, ha?”

He stood with an aggressive stance and snickered, making me feel that whatever I was going to say was going to be exactly the wrong thing to say.

“You want my name?” he snapped. “Ha! Here’s my name!” He pointed self-righteously and indignantly at the words “J. DUTTO” on the right breast pocket of his blue uniform. He sharply poked himself several times in the chest. “D-U-T-T-O,” he said, spelling out his name for me.

“You want my badge number? Here’s my badge number!” He repeated the pointing/poking routine on the gold star pinned on his opposite breast pocket, which read #1235. “ONE TWO THREE FIVE.”

“See now? You got it. Ha! Name and badge number.”

“Can I please have a pen?” I asked.

“No, you can’t, ha!” he sneered. “Now get the fuck outta here!”

I turned around slowly and walked toward the lobby. I was pretty sure this nightmare was finally over, but I found out—yet again—that it wasn’t.

“You know what?”

I turned back around to look at Officer Dutto.

“You ARE a fuckin’ idiot!” He stormed off, chuckling and seeming very proud of himself.

I walked away. I felt ashamed, confused, exhausted, hungry, and thirsty.

I feebly turned my focus to the matter at hand: how to use the five-odd dollar bills I had in my pocket to find my way out of the jurisdiction of the SFPD. With downcast eyes, I walked north on 7th Street, bought a BART ticket at Powell Station, and boarded the next eastbound train.

For the first time in my life, I was being completely honest when I told the panhandlers who solicited me that I had nothing to give them.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

14 June 2012—77 days since the accident

I disembarked from BART at the Dublin/Pleasanton Station, some thirty-five miles southeast of San Francisco. Carroll had managed to find us some slightly nicer digs at a great price, so a new hotel on a large property that included an outdoor pool and a hot tub awaited me. After a shower, twenty minutes in the hot tub, a few laps in the pool, thirty more minutes in the hot tub, and then another shower, I felt I had sufficiently cleansed myself of the rotten stench of the holding pen.

Try as I might, however, I couldn’t shake the memory of the behavior of officers Kim and Dutto. Should I file a complaint? Should I seek retribution for the way I was treated? I considered it, but decided against it. If Internal Affairs operated anything like the other parts of this city’s government, then filing a complaint would be a waste of everyone’s time.

Expecting the worst, I sat down in front of my laptop and was greeted with something even worse than the worst. It turns out that while I was busy getting locked up, pushed around, and taunted in jail, the DA’s office had produced the following press release.

DA George Gascón Charging Bicyclist with Felony Vehicular Manslaughter

For Immediate Release

Thursday, June 14, 2012

CONTACT: Stephanie Ong Stillman, DA Gascón’s Office, (415) 553-1167 or (415) 740-5134 Alex Bastian, DA Gascón’s Office, (415) 553-1931

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – District Attorney George Gascón announced today that a felony vehicular manslaughter charge will be filed against Chris Bucchere, age 36, a bicyclist who struck Sutchi Hui, a 71 year old man who was crossing the street with his wife on Market and Castro.

“Mr. Hui was a husband and a father and he was killed because of a bicyclist’s need for speed,” said District Attorney George Gascón. “This incident could have been avoided and we can do better as a city to avoid these tragic consequences. In order to preserve our diverse transit community, everyone has to follow the rules of the road.”

On the morning of Thursday, March 29, Hui was crossing the street with his wife on Market and Castro when he was struck by Bucchere, who was riding his bicycle through the intersection of Market and Castro. Hui sustained blunt force trauma injuries from the collision that led to the cause of his death on Monday, April 2.

“This tragic death caused by a bicyclist illustrates the worst case scenario when traffic laws are not obeyed,” said District Attorney Gascón. He explained that Bucchere displayed gross negligence in operating his bicycle warranting a felony vehicular manslaughter charge. His office intends to prove that there was a pattern of traffic laws being broken by Bucchere leading up to the accident.

According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, since 2006, there has been a 71% increase in the number of people biking in San Francisco. The District Attorney is asking the public to respect pedestrians’ right-of-way and to avoid behaviors that could lead to accidents. For information on pedestrian safety, visit http://www.walksf.org. For information on bicycle safety, visit http://www.sfbike.org/edu.

Chris Bucchere is scheduled to be arraigned early next week. San Francisco Police Department Inspector Lori Cadigan is assigned to this case. Assistant District Attorney Omid Talai is the prosecutor on this case.

Gascón had held multiple press conferences earlier in the day in which he augmented the press release by adding a litany of other accusations, including this stunning conclusion: “I think that when you look at the totality of this case, you’re looking at someone that really doesn’t care for anybody except himself.”

Has any DA ever made a value judgment as outrageous as that after any vehicle accident, no matter how egregious?

Gascón continued, claiming, “the tragedy that occurred here did not need to occur. It was predictable. It was avoidable.” And, “his selfish motivation, you know, his need for speed and his behavior were completely, uh, horrible.” And furthermore, Gascon wanted “to send a very clear message here that we believe that the conduct in this case was gross, was very egregious,” claiming that I was interested in “beating [my] own record on that course” and that I “was bragging about it online.”

The feeling of listening to a person of authority tell the media, thereby telling the world—that I don’t care for anybody but myself, that I was racing during rush hour past an elementary school and in a busy intersection, that I have a “need for speed,” and that my behavior was “completely horrible”—was infuriating, especially when I knew not a word of it was true.

My teeth and fists clenched in rage, I stared at the glowing screen of my laptop.

At some point, at least some of the stories about this accident might have had something to do with me, I thought. However, that no longer seemed to be the case. The larger narrative had become less and less about what happened in that intersection; it wasn’t even about the accident—or me—anymore.

This was about a DA sending a clear message that he hates cyclists, using me as the messenger.

It wasn’t my fault that some cyclists flaunt the rules of the road and it wasn’t my fault that Randy Ang had been given a supposedly light punishment, but it seemed—regardless of what I did or didn’t do—I was going to have an example made out of me. Was there any hope of getting a fair shake in this situation?

Any confidence I might have had was fading quickly.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

21 June 2012—84 days since the accident

It was late in the afternoon on my first full week back at work that my manager, Pradeep, whom I respected immensely as a technologist and also really liked as a person, came over to my cube.

“Chris, can I borrow you for second?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Um, let’s go grab a conference room.”

It was at this point that I realized something was awry. If this were anything related to normal, tactical work, we would have had the conversation right there in my cube. I had a sinking feeling about this impromptu meeting already, and I hadn’t even gotten out of my chair yet.

Pradeep led me over to a nearby conference room and shut the door, leaving us inside a room with a dozen chairs, a long boardroom-style table, and bunch of “world clocks” set to different time zones.

“Chris, I’m really sorry to have to do this. You’ve been a real asset to our team.”

“What’s going on, Pradeep?”

“I’m afraid that we’ve had to terminate your contract.”

“Wow. I don’t really know what to say. When does my contract end, exactly?”

“Two weeks. I want you to schedule knowledge-transfer sessions with each person on the team for a couple of hours each day for the remainder of your time here.”

“Is this negotiable?” I asked. It seemed like a fair question.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Well, I’ve really enjoyed working with you guys, and I’m going to miss you all dearly. I’ve learned so much from all of you.”

“It’s mutual. You’re leaving really big shoes to fill, and we were happy to have you for as long as we did.”

“If that’s the case, why are you terminating me?”

“You know I can’t say anything other than that it’s for no official reason.”

“Uh-huh. Is the ‘unofficial reason’ what I think it is?” I asked, with air-quotes around “unofficial reason.”

Pradeep got flustered and started to turn red in the face. His eyes darted from corner to corner, as if to see if anyone else was in the empty conference room with us. He had once told me—over a homemade lunch of rice, mung dal, and naan, which he ate with his bare hands—that he grew up in a village in southern India that lacked any kind of refrigeration. Sometime in the mid-1980s, someone managed to get their hands on a freezer. He recalled how he and the other kids came from miles around to see this marvel of modern technology. They experimented by putting all sorts of liquids in the freezer to see what would freeze and what wouldn’t. Water? Yes. Milk? Yes, but badly. Gasoline? No.

Pradeep and I, other than the fact that we worked together, had very little in common. He emigrated from his village a little over ten years ago. Eating with his bare hands was more than just a lingering cultural difference; he once told me he felt as if he couldn’t taste the food properly if he used utensils to eat it.

With my last question still lingering in the air, I decided to try a different, more direct approach.

“I’ve done nothing but great work for you guys, Pradeep. You know that. I’ve personally made millions upon millions of dollars for this company through search optimizations. It’s obvious you’re not canning me because of my performance. So this is about the crazy charges and the media circus, isn’t it?”

“You know I can’t say anything about that.”

“Fair enough. But you know they’re complete bullshit, right?”

Of course I know that! In India, there would just be another dead guy in the street. No one would even blink an eye.”

“But here, it’s like the whole goddamn world is revolving around it! The press is having a field day with it. And the DA is playing along! Now you guys, too?”

Pradeep threw his hands up in the air and shook his head. Then, he pushed his chair back and stood up.

“I don’t know what to say, Chris. This is America.”


>> Continue to PART V: The Light


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash PART III: Conceiving the Inconceivable

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 III: Conceiving the Inconceivable

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

11 April 2012 —13 days since the accident

Just when it seemed that nothing would ever go my way, something finally did. An ex-Mission Cycling teammate of mine, Vitaly Gashpar, wrote a detailed blog post about the accident and the media coverage it had received. I had spoken with Vitaly many times while covering the same route I rode that day, but never considered him to be anything more than a teammate and fellow cycling partner. We hadn’t spoken since the last ride we did together weeks ago. No one had tipped off Vitaly to make him privy to any special information about the accident or the ongoing investigation; rather, he analyzed the same information available to the public at the time, yet he arrived at very different conclusions from the ones made by the media and by bloggers and trolls around the globe.

Here’s what Vitaly wrote, in its entirety, reproduced with his permission:

The Bucchere Report

I wasn’t planning on writing about this. I didn’t want to because I felt I’m a bit too close to the conflict and I didn’t feel that this would be accepted as a neutral analysis of the events. But as I saw the anger, and the accusations, and the unfounded speculations flying left and right in comments under every article or blog that mentioned these events, I felt I needed to do it. I must say, the level of journalism and reporting with regard to this event has set the bar extremely low for what I consider news reporting, or even news blogging.

I hope to lay out the facts as we know them, and those facts that we can ascertain from the very strong circumstantial evidence, and take an objective, outside view of what transpired that morning, without assumptions, without hate, without anger, and most importantly, without any preconceived notions of what may have happened.

I’m not sure if any of the below will make even a dimple in the opinions of the lynch mob that has apparently formed over this, but if it causes at least one person to view the situation in a different light, it’s worth it.

Full disclosure: In 2010 and 2011 I was an official member of Mission Cycling. I am not this year due to other commitments and constraints that I have. I have ridden the MC AM Headlands Raid dozens, and dozens, and dozens of times. I have ridden it as part of a group with Chris Bucchere dozens, and dozens of times (edit: I was not on the ride that morning). We became acquainted through our rides together. I’m not claiming to be his close friend or know everything to know about him. I’m not claiming to have some insight into his personality or who he is as a person. All I have is my impression of him based on our interactions on these morning rides, which is that he’s an intelligent guy, who likes to joke and goof around. He’s always been nice in all our interactions and never did he give me cause to think, “man, this guy is an asshole.” And I’m also a lawyer—but not Chris’ lawyer, obviously.

Now that you know where I’m coming from, here’s my take on the situation.

The facts

The morning of March 29, CB was coming back from an MC morning ride. There is no reason to doubt that he was coming down Divisadero toward Market Street. There is also no reason to doubt that he crossed Market Street and as he was crossing Market Street, he collided with a pedestrian who later died in the hospital.

We know that sometime after the accident, CB sent out an email to a list of recipients close to 1,000 detailing the events of that morning. Before I get to that email, I must say that the carve job the papers did on it is absolutely amazing. Additionally, we also know that at the time the email was sent, CB had no idea exactly how serious of a condition the pedestrian was in. He had no way of knowing that the pedestrian would die.

What can be inferred from the email and the early accounts, before any speculation began, is that CB hit his head in the collision, was blacked out and also taken to the hospital—the same hospital as the pedestrian.

My point here is the guy hit his head earlier in the day before writing the email. So two flags should come up for anyone reading that email: first, clearly not the best judgment was used in sending it out and definitely in drafting some parts of it; second, it is not to be taken as a picture perfect account of events. Eye-witness testimony is perhaps the most inaccurate testimony a court ever hears. Add to that a traumatic event and possible head trauma, and things get fuzzy.

Another thing I’d like to point out, CB actually mentions the victim twice in the email, not once like most outlets report. He first says: “I really hope he ends up OK.” And then two paragraphs later, after listing his own injuries, he writes: “The guy I hit was not as fortunate. I really hope he makes it.”

What color was the light? That’s a fact we don’t know. CB writes that it was yellow as he entered the intersection, but as I mentioned above, those accounts might not necessarily be accurate due to the trauma during the event. It is unlikely that the light was red when he entered the intersection because I ride through that crossing two times a day and he would have been run over by a car at least twice before he reached the other side. Likely, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I’m not going to guess what the color the light was because the only thing guessing has done in this case is flamed more hatred.

The ode to the helmet. The fact is it was written. Not the best judgment was used in writing it, but it was written before the pedestrian died, before CB realized how serious these events were going to be, and at a time where he most likely was not entirely “with it.” Had I just been to a hospital after losing consciousness and seeing how I just hurt another human being, I’m not sure what my psychological reaction would be. I don’t claim to know what CB’s was, but what I am saying is he shouldn’t be vilified for it, not without more. To say he was dumb to write it is fair, to say he’s an evil, callous human being is in my opinion going a step too far. Which brings us to the next segment of this saga.

The spinathon

From the facts above—the only facts known or those that can be inferred from circumstantial evidence with any degree of certainty—a whole other pile of information has come forth, literally out of nowhere. Here are some examples:

He was riding a fixed gear bike with no brakes. This originated in a comment on a forum or on a blog and spun completely out of control. I will admit that currently, there are no public facts (word public is key, read between the lines here) stating what kind of bike he was riding, but there is also absolutely NOTHING to suggest he was riding a bike with no brakes. Why make this assumption and sell it as gospel? Moreover, cops have CB’s bike, a part of the email conveniently left out by all the papers and blogs.

He was racing another rider that morning. This came by way of a “witness account.” Someone claims they saw CB and another rider blasting through stop signs and red lights. If there were two riders, wouldn’t one of them still be on the scene? There were no reports of a fleeing rider. All information suggests he was traveling alone down Divisadero. The witness account sounds completely made up. If the witness saw CB and another rider running lights and stop signs, the car would have had to follow them and also run red lights. If the car stopped at the red light, the bikes would have been out of the line of sight, or if they were in the line of sight, wouldn’t the driver had also seen the accident that was at the bottom of the hill? And why did this motorist wait a whole week to come forward?

Moreover, anyone who’s a cyclist knows this is BS because all of us had instances where we’ve ridden with someone many times, but when we run into the person on the street in street clothes we don’t recognize him. For some driver in a car at 8 am – when bike traffic is very heavy – to connect the dots between two cyclists traveling together and CB is specious at best. Lastly, this witness report came in about a week after the events, when all tempers were flying high, and it is wholly possible that some “well-intentioned” individual was trying to help the DA make up his mind as to whether charges should be filed.

Strava did it! This is America, and in America no one is responsible for his own actions. The coffee was too hot, the knife was too sharp, the gun was too loaded and the building was too tall – find a scapegoat and sue. That’s the motto! (Feel free to enjoy a bit of irony as this is written by a lawyer.)

Yes, we know Chris was on Strava. We know that the segment he was riding used to have a word “bomb” in it. We also know that “bomb” is part of cycling slang that has at least two meanings. First: I bombed that descent. This means that I went down a hill REALLY fast. Second: That’s a bombing descent. This usually means the descent is steep and has the potential to take you to high speeds. And that’s all we know. Unless someone out there has ESP and can read CB’s mind on March 29, don’t assume he was going down that hill in an attempt to set a new fastest time. And if you are going to assume that, don’t claim that anyone other than he himself made the decision to go down that hill as quickly as he did.

In law, there is a concept called the attractive nuisance doctrine. It applies where a dangerous element is present at a site that would normally attract kids. There is a reason it only applies to minors.

CB is an [insert a demonizing term]. No, he isn’t. If you spend five minutes in conversation with him, you’ll know he isn’t. But it’s easy to hate someone based on an image you construe in your head based on inaccurate reports and accounts.

Have we not learned yet? Anyone remember Richard Jewell? He was the man falsely accused and subsequently completely cleared of the 1996 Atlanta bombing. Even now, George Zimmerman has had his life ruined by early accounts of what transpired that night. And now that conflicting accounts of the story have come to light, it might be too late to unring the bell that was rung. In this country, we continuously try people in the press and convict them in the public’s eye. Then we forget about what we have done and move on to other current events, but the scars we leave on a person we condemn without all of the facts before us do not go away. This obviously goes beyond CB and this accident.

The hatred

“Hatred and anger are like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Remember that, you’ll live longer. The level of hatred that I have seen over the last few weeks has been astounding and depressing. It saddens me to know that so many human beings have it within themselves to hate with such strength, or at least that’s what comes through in the comments they post.

On some level, given the information that is funneled to the audience, I can understand a level of disdain for CB. However, I don’t understand why we as cyclists are hated with such ferocity. We don’t all break laws. We aren’t all arrogant assholes who think we’re better than our motorist friends. In fact, most of us cyclists are also drivers and pedestrians, the reverse of which is far from true.

When I ride down the street and someone without signaling cuts me off by turning to the right in front of me, I get mad at the person, but I don’t hold it against any other driver on the road. I cannot understand why this is the complete opposite with cyclists. If one breaks the law, everyone must do it too. If one is reckless, the rest are as well. It’s like we’re all members of the same political party.

I know that as a whole, we as cyclists need to do better with regard to sharing the road, just like motorists need to be better about sharing the road (give me more than 5 inches when you pass me on the road, please). As more and more cyclists flood to the roads, the infrastructure needs to catch up. Lights need to be longer, so that if a cyclist enters on yellow, he has time to cross before the light changes. Or if a cyclists comes to an intersection with a red light that can be only tripped by a heavy metal car, what is he to do but run the red light (assuming no car comes behind to set it off)?

The main point here is that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists need to work together to make our roads safer. This means we have to obey laws, but also put ourselves in the shoes of the other and not lump entire groups of people together as if they are a projection of one person’s actions.

Take an honest look at yourself. If you’re a cyclist who normally rolls through stop signs and disobeys red lights, make an effort to be better. This will keep you safer and will build goodwill for all of us. If you’re a driver who sees a cyclist break a law, don’t extrapolate and don’t vilify. In all likelihood, the drivers in the car behind you and the one in front of you probably exceeded the speed limit, changed lanes or turned without signaling, or ran a sign in the last 20 minutes. Heck, you might be one of those drivers. And if that’s the case, you too try to be better. As pedestrians, understand motorists and cyclists. Give us the right of way if we’re already crossing an intersection. It scares us when you come onto the roadway—we really don’t want to hit you.

All of this seems so common sense that I feel silly writing it out, but as I walk, ride or drive I see these principles violated with extreme regularity by cyclists, motorists and pedestrians alike.

I hope this incident teaches us not only to be safer cyclists and reminds us that our actions can oftentimes have heavy consequences, but that it brings all sides to the table for a calm discussion, resulting in a better environment for everyone. This tragedy already claimed one life, let’s make an effort to stop it there.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

24 April 2012—26 days since the accident

S.F. bicyclist in fatal crash may face felony

Chris Bucchere hit and killed Sutchi Hui at the intersection of Castro and Market streets in San Francisco on March 29.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón is preparing to file felony vehicular manslaughter charges against Chris Bucchere, the bicyclist who fatally struck a 71-year-old pedestrian in the Castro last month.

The felony charge—which could result in a 16-month sentence for Bucchere if he is convicted—is a sharp contrast to the misdemeanor count prosecutors filed in a case last year in which a bicyclist struck and killed a woman along the Embarcadero.

The difference this time is prosecutors’ conclusion that Bucchere, 35, was grossly negligent in his riding before he ran into Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk at Market and Castro streets March 29.

“I think the evidence is very strong,” said one source inside the D.A.’s office, who asked not to be named while the charges are still pending.

The problem wasn’t that Bucchere ran a red light—prosecutors think the light was yellow when he rode into the intersection heading south.

But before that, a motorist reported seeing Bucchere fly through several red lights and stop signs along Divisadero Street leading up to the intersection, said police Capt. Denis O’Leary, head of the hit-and-run detail that investigated the collision.

Also, a tracker on Bucchere’s bike allegedly showed he was riding faster than 35 mph in a 25-mph zone.

Finally, a video taken from a surveillance camera at 17th and Market streets reportedly showed a hunched-over Bucchere speeding through the intersection, making little or no attempt to stop before hitting Hui on the far side.

“It really shows his recklessness,” O’Leary said.

In short, prosecutors will argue that—light or no light—Bucchere was traveling at an unsafe speed and failed to yield to Hui in the crosswalk.

On the other hand, O’Leary said the cavalier Internet postings attributed to Bucchere after the collision will probably not figure in the case against him.

“How do you prove that it was he that wrote them?” O’Leary said.

A posting that originated from Bucchere’s mailbox gave the following account of the crash:

“I was already way too committed to stop. . . .I couldn’t see a line through the crowd and I couldn’t stop, so I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find.”

The email was widely reported in the media and etched the image of Bucchere as one of those self-centered cyclists who routinely scoff at traffic laws.

And while no one will say it on the record, the image did little to garner sympathy with the public, the D.A., the police or even fellow cyclists.

Bucchere’s attorney, Ted Cassman, did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

The decision to charge Bucchere with a felony is a sharp turn from how the D.A. handled the case of 23-year-old Randolph Ang, who struck a tourist as she was walking across Mission Street at the Embarcadero on July 15.

The pedestrian, Dionette “Didi” Cherney of Washington, D.C., fell, hit her head and later died.

In that case, Gascón—at the urging of Cherney’s family—opted to file a lesser misdemeanor charge against Ang, resulting in a plea deal last month in which the rider agreed to three years’ probation, $15,375 in restitution to the family and 500 hours of community service on bicycle safety.

“He was young, late for his first job, immediately tried to help and was remorseful and very quickly took full responsibility,” said Ang’s attorney, Tony Brass.

“I think it made a big difference.”


From: Chris Bucchere
To: Ted Cassman
Subject: As DA Weighs Evidence, Matier & Ross Bring Felony Charges against Cyclist

Hi Ted,

Just when I thought things were quieting down (8 days out of the news), M&R released another slew of unattributed leaks from the DA’s office and from police Capt. Denis O’Leary that point toward felony charges. Since journalists already have zero integrity and since these guys aren’t even journalists, I don’t give this any credibility whatsoever.

However, it is interesting to note that M&R say that prosecutors believe that the light was yellow when I entered the intersection, but that their alleged case now hinges upon my speed (including Strava’s wildly inaccurate iPhone-based estimate of 35 mph) and the video showing that I appear not to have yielded right-of-way to pedestrians in the crosswalk, thereby showing that I acted recklessly. That, coupled with this alleged motorist who allegedly saw me fly through several lights and stop signs before reaching Castro + Market (with no mention of the “other cyclist” allegedly running lights/signs with me) seems to complete their “case.”

I have two questions about this:

1) If someone did see me fly through a stop sign or light before I got there (which I did not), how is that relevant to what happened at Castro and Market? And if it wasn’t a police officer in a squad car, but instead someone who came out of the woodwork weeks after the accident to provide this alleged eyewitness account, can it be trusted?

Can they be asked what color jersey I was wearing? What about this other cyclist? What color was his or her bike? I think this person is likely somebody who lives in the Castro and has a bone to pick with cyclists (like everyone else in this city). Plus, if they really saw me fly through several lights and stop signs from the inside of a car, they would have had to fly through those signs and lights too (in rush hour) just to keep up. Unless they were trying to race me and [Tobias], I would love to know why they also ran those lights and signs. Were they keeping an eye me? Citizen patrol ala George Zimmerman? Trying to run me down? The more I hear about this “eyewitness account,” the more it makes me want to call bullshit.

2) If I was really going 35 mph through a yellow light, how in the world did three to four pedestrians enter the crosswalk before I got there?

Remember, the light is yellow for three and a half seconds seconds. Then, the light is red for another three and a half seconds before the WALK symbol appears.

35 mph = 51 feet per second, and the intersection is 150 feet long.

So, if I entered on an early yellow and held a constant 35 mph (which is really fast on a road bike with skinny tires going over potholes and MUNI tracks), I would have cleared that intersection a half a second before the light turned red and four seconds before the pedestrians were given the WALK sign.

And, if I entered on a very late yellow holding a constant 35 mph, I would have cleared that intersection a half a second before the pedestrians were given the WALK sign. If you add in a half a second for the pedestrians to react to the WALK sign and actually start walking, I’m still pretty safely clear of the intersection at that point and on my way home, accident free.

So this really doesn’t add up. In fact, the faster they claim I was going, the earlier the pedestrians would have had to cross to be in violation of my right-of-way. That doesn’t strengthen their case; it weakens it. It shows that one or more pedestrians crossed early, perhaps very early.

If the video shows peds close to the middle of the intersection by the time I got there, that means that there was a lot of early crossing and fast walking going on. (Remember the 24 Divisadero bus they were trying to catch?) It’s very easy for a “herd mentality” to kick in which creates a false sense of security. I’m guessing that one or two people jumped the light very early heading westbound, then Mrs. Hui, then Mr. Hui right as I was trying to pass through.

Mrs. Hui claims in the video that her husband always waited a bit before crossing. He was behind her and she didn’t see the accident, only heard it. For the numbers to add up with what I’ve read about the video, at least three people—including Mrs. Hui—crossed illegally well before the WALK sign and without checking the intersection for traffic. Mr. Hui may have waited, but he still didn’t check the intersection because he, like everyone else in the crosswalk, was thinking about whether or not they were going to get a seat on the bus instead of wondering whether it was safe to cross the street or not.

[…]

The bottom line is that if the light was yellow, my speed was <= 25 mph and I was not violating the basic speed law, then all the pedestrians should have allowed me to safely exit the south end of that intersection. Based on my inspection of the video camera’s location, I know it will clearly show the color of the STOP/WALK indicator on the west side of Castro Street. If any pedestrian so much as takes one step off the sidewalk before the WALK symbol appears or enters the crosswalk before checking for traffic in the intersection, then my right-of-way was violated. The more blatantly it was violated (i.e. by crossing against my yellow or green), the more impossible it was for me to avoid an accident, even given my thirty years of cycling experience.

I read that the video shows people in the middle of the intersection by the time I got there. You heard the prosecutor say to you that the media accounts of the video were accurate. The faster the police/DA claim I was going, then the more blatant the jaywalking was, which really weakens any case against me based on speed. Ten mph over the limit, even if proven and if possible on a bike like that in an intersection like that, is not reckless.

It sounds callous, but a crosswalk full of jaywalking people trying to catch a bus violated my right-of-way. If my speed was 35 and there were already three to four people in the intersection by the time I got there, they crossed way too soon. If my speed was closer to 25, they still crossed too soon. At 20, it was a very close call, but per CVC21456, they still had an obligation to yield to traffic in the intersection. And if the video shows that one or more of the pedestrians didn’t bother to look into the intersection, then regardless of the color of STOP/WALK indicator, they violated CVC21456 and are 100% at fault for this accident.

M&R make this sound like a slam dunk, but it’s full of holes. This may sound naive, but I stand by my original statement based on my first conversation with Inspector Cadigan: I will not be charged. If I am charged, you and I have built up an absurd number of reasons why I should not be charged. If the DA’s office makes the wrong call here, I know you have everything you need to talk them down. If there’s any other “smoking gun” you need, please LMK.

Thanks and best regards,

Chris

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

25 April 2012—27 days since the accident

There’s an old saying about March weather, lions and lambs. In a certain sense, I came roaring into today like a lion, ready to proclaim and defend my innocence, armed with a bevy of battle-tested defenses and a borderline-irrational insistence that I would not be charged for whatever happened on the 29th of March.

By coincidence, Prince and I had both arranged to work from our respective homes on Wednesday. Seeing as how we lived about a dozen blocks from one another in a perfectly straight line down 20th Street, we decided to have lunch together. I stopped at my favorite Middle Eastern place and picked up shawarma for the both of us. We flipped a coin to decide whether to dine at his house or mine. Really, it made no difference, but when the coin showed tails we settled on his place.

As we ate and discussed the virtue or vice of including roasted eggplant in a shawarma (I for, he against), I heard the ping of yet another media alert and opened the lid on my computer. There, I was greeted by a video of the mustachioed mug of police Captain Denis O’Leary saying he was preparing to arrest me for a felony.45 “We’re seeking a warrant for the bicyclist’s arrest for felony vehicular manslaughter,” he said.

I was stunned—and then horrified.

Having grown a somewhat thick skin in response to seeing a strange caricature of myself on TV, I generally tried to compartmentalize to keep the coverage from worrying me too much. This time, however, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmingly paranoid.

All along, I had been 100% cooperative with the police investigation. If I were to be charged, I would expect Ted to be the first to know, and then for him to call me. Instead, I was hearing about my arrest warrant on a morning news broadcast on ABC’s Channel 7.

Ted had already told the DA’s office that I would self-surrender in keeping with my continued cooperation with the investigation. The police had no reason to arrest me; this segment existed solely for the benefit of TV news, which seemed to have already jumped to the conclusion that I was a reckless, dangerous criminal in need of hauling in.

At once, terrifying visions came flooding in: the police showing up at my door and dragging me away from my crying wife and daughter. The bewildered neighbors. Friends and coworkers seeing this spectacle on the TV news. As was consistently true since the accident, I couldn’t discern whether these visions of mine were paranoid delusions or accurate depictions of events about to happen to me and my family. So many routine protocols had been thrown out the window already—who knew what would happen next?

I quickly sent a link to the video to Ted with a one-line question: “Is there something we should be doing about this?” After that, I snapped my computer lid shut. Not waiting for Ted’s reply, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Per our evacuation plan, I texted my wife 911. Again. When I got the 911 in response, I immediately went dark, putting my iPhone into airplane mode and turning on my pay-as-you-go phone, registered to a phony name. My wife did the same and left work immediately to pull Ashley out of school. With my overnight bag already loaded in the trunk, I said a quick farewell to my good friend, and asked him to email our fellow coworkers to explain my sudden departure.

“What do I tell them?” asked Prince.

“Fuck if I care at this point, dude. I’m not getting arrested today. And I’m definitely not getting arrested in front of my family on TV!” The media wanted a circus, and I was not about to give them one.

“Come on, seriously. Give me something.”

“Fine. Tell them the world’s gone mad, the police are coming to get me, and if I don’t skip town I’m gonna be starring on the next episode of COPS.”

“Dude, come on now.”

“I’m serious. I’m not going to let them turn what’s left of my private life into a goddamn reality segment for the evening news! Fuck, Prince, please. Tell them whatever you want. I’m blowing this joint, right fucking now.”

With that, I jammed my computer into my laptop bag and scurried off to my car. Who knew if the media or the police—or both—were waiting for me at the office or at home? I didn’t know what scared me more: getting arrested or being on TV, with my family and neighbors standing by. The terror of this dark reality spurred me into action. I jumped into my car and headed north on Potrero Avenue, making a beeline for the Bay Bridge. I stopped at a Wells Fargo, and, swiping my ATM card four times, I withdrew another $3,200 in cash.

As I crossed through the tunnel that bisects Yerba Buena Island, I felt relieved to be out of the jurisdiction of the SFPD, who I trusted at this point about as much as I would trust a dog to guard a slab of raw meat. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t being followed. The daytime traffic moved steadily; before long, I found myself sailing through the wind farm at Altamont Pass. I roared off down Highway 5, stopping hardly at all, spending cash only when I did, and trying to keep away from surveillance cameras. If you look for them, they seem to turn up just about everywhere.

Meanwhile, my wife and daughter drove to a friend’s house tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I knew they would be safe—and practically unfindable. A family friend picked up our elderly dog and adopted her for the foreseeable future. I spent the night at the house of an old friend in Placentia, in the heart of Orange County. He sat wide-eyed in disbelief as I recounted the details of my situation. I made eggs for his three kids before school the next morning, and then continued my journey south, arriving at my parents’ home in San Diego by mid-morning.

Using my pay-as-you-go phone, I called Ted and told him I had left town. Not trusting anyone or anything, least of all the privacy of our digital communications, I didn’t tell him where I was, but I told him I could be back in the Bay Area within twelve hours if needed. I had to escape the madness. Carroll and Ashley were well out of the city and in the mountains somewhere. They were safe. We’re not going to be arrested on TV, dammit, I told him. They’re trying to make a spectacle out of this, Ted, and I’m not going to stand for it.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

11 May 2012—43 days since the accident

After reuniting with Carroll and Ashley in Southern California, we drove back to San Francisco and experienced a few days in a row of relative calmness—until Ted Cassman’s name lit up on my phone.

“Chris, I have bad news,” he said.

“Lay it on me.” I was expecting him to tell me that I had finally gotten charged. Getting charged, in a certain sense, would provide some much needed closure to this waiting game. Anything seemed better than the waiting.

“Remember how I told you that the Hui family and their attorney, Rick Johnson, met with the DA?”

“Yes,” I replied. It didn’t sound like I was being charged. At least not yet. I was relieved, but still very concerned.

“Rick told the family about the two million dollar umbrella policy you and Carroll have. He told the Huis how YNK Insurance reserved their right to cancel your coverage because Gascón got on the news talking about charging you with a felony. Rick told Sutchi’s widow, Betty, and his son, Terry Jr., that if they would just ask the DA to show some leniency, your insurance coverage would most likely stay in effect, giving the Hui family a much better shot at a large insurance settlement than if they were to come after you and your family personally.”

“Okay, that sounds great. What’s the problem?” I asked impatiently.

“I’m getting around to that,” snapped Ted “Just listen.”

Ted had to tell me to shut up at least once per conversation, so I was getting used to this.

“So Rick and the Hui family met with Gascón. Rick told me that everything went according to plan. He and the family asked for leniency and expressed their desire to handle this as an insurance matter.”

“But I’m guessing the story doesn’t end there.”

“It doesn’t. The son, Terry Jr., went back to see Gascón again to have his own meeting.”

“Oh, please, tell me he didn’t do something stupid.”

“Chris, I’m really sorry about this. But Terry went back to Gascón again and told him to throw the book at you. He said he wants you punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Oh, fuck me. Do Betty and Rick know?”

“They do now. But Terry went around his mother’s back, disobeying her advice and the advice of their counsel.”

“How the hell did Rick let this happen?”

“He just found out about this himself.”

Jesus, Ted! This happened because the family is watching the TV news and reading the newspaper. And they’re believing this fictional narrative about me! They believe this fucking bullshit! Everyone believes it! Fuck!

“Chris, get ahold of yourself. You can’t possibly know what’s going on in Terry’s head.”

“Sure I can! His father is dead. He’s already mad as hell about that, and I’m sure he’s an emotional train wreck. And the DA, through the Matier & Ross columns, has told the entire motherfucking world that this is all my fault. So now he’s even more pissed, and he wants revenge. But he’s thinking with his gut, not his brain! Why can’t he just take the money? My going to jail does him no good. It does their whole family no good. This is bullshit, Ted! Gascón doesn’t need any more encouragement; he’s already out for blood! And now the son wants revenge? What the fuck are we going to do about this?”

As my temper spun up, Ted’s demeanor settled down, bringing an unlikely equilibrium to an incredibly heated conversation.

“There’s nothing we can do right now, Chris. Gascón still hasn’t charged you yet—he may very well go with a misdemeanor. Or decide not even to charge you at all.”

“Bullshit—you and I both know damn well that he decided felony the moment he heard about the accident, months before the police report was even presented to his office! He told KCBS felony right out of the gate. Now Gascón’s looking for reasons to justify his irrational decision. And Terry just gave him another one.”

“Settle down, Chris. You haven’t been charged with anything yet. You just have to let this play out.”

“Gascón pissed in the jury pool, Ted,” I continued, not finished with my tirade. “Through his orchestrated ‘leaks’ and press releases, he’s made it impossible for any viewpoint to surface other than the one that says that this whole accident is 100% my fault. And you told me that media doesn’t matter.”

“I never said the media doesn’t matter!” Ted struck back. “They definitely matter! I said there’s no use trying to fight them because it’s a battle you’ll never be able to win.”

“We’ll see about that!

I hung up the phone, defiant.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

12 May 2012—44 days since the accident

The morning after Ted’s latest revelation—about Sutchi’s son, Terry, out for blood, playing the justice-as-revenge card—fell on a Saturday. I drove to Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica with my longboard in tow and set out for a couple of hours of paddling around and maybe catching a few waves. I did this with the hope of clearing my head, which was spinning in different directions, awash with irrational, feverish emotions. My real identity and my media personality fought valiantly to remain separate, while outside pressures tried to squeeze them into one.

That morning, as I paddled out into the surf, I felt angry—angry that I had been betrayed by the police. Betrayed by the DA. Betrayed by the media. By gossip columnists. By bloggers. By my cycling team. By the SFBC. By thousands and thousands of hateful trolls. I was betrayed by my own foolish words, as they were strung together by the media and used to manipulate people into thinking I was a monster.

The fifty-seven-degree water saturated the arms of my wetsuit, sending chills up and down my spine. I soon became impervious to the cold, but not immune to the tumult of the impact zone. As I was dragged under the white water, I fought the urge to panic with a resolve I had never felt before. I felt weightless as I waited to come up for air. I almost cherished the helplessness of being held down by a wave.

The thrashing chill of the ocean changed my perspective. I realized that the government and the media were trying to portray me as the perfect candidate to become the world’s first bicycle felon. The portrayal felt like a betrayal—because it was built upon misunderstandings, misconceptions, and lies—but really, they were just telling their side of the story. And I wasn’t telling mine. That was the problem: I needed to tell my story.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became. Maybe, after Carroll and I had put our daughter to bed that night, I could use the statement I wrote in the hotel in Oakland as a starting point, updating it to deliver a simplified message: The DA was using the media to create a story that’s not true, and now Terry, after believing the lies he was told, wants the DA to throw the book at me even though it’s clear that I had the right of way. Let’s open this up for public debate. But first, let’s make sure that people can at least argue with facts from both sides, not just a bunch of unfounded accusations.

This sounded like a reasonable enough plan, so I called Ted’s cellphone. He picked it up, even though it was midday on a Saturday. Damn, I’m glad this guy is on my team.

“Hey, Ted, listen. Whenever I go surfing, it clears my head, and I have a whole different take on things now. The other side has been dominating the media, telling only their version of the story. But what about my story? The one based on facts and data, not on ridiculous allegations.”

“Chris, let me stop you right there. You already know what I’m going to say—”

I cut Ted off. “But wait! Look at how much more interesting the story got. The son now wants revenge! He wants me punished to the fullest extent of the law. Why? Because he believes the bullshit the DA leaked to the media.”

“Stop it right now. I mean it, stop it. You can’t do this.”

“But it’s what we need to do. It’s the only thing we can do. It isn’t fair for only one side to dominate the whole story.”

“You know you can’t do this.”

“No, you don’t understand! Why can’t I defend myself, just a little, just give people a little insight on how the DA and the media are bending reality to suit their ambitions? And how, even though I probably had the right of way, I’m getting screwed with my pants on! Then maybe I can get some support from the public. They deserve to know the real story. I trust they’ll do the right thing. What’s wrong with fighting a fair fight in the media?”

“Dammit Chris, you sound ridiculous. Give it up! There’s no good that will come of talking to the media. You already know that. They’ll just contort and pervert whatever you say to fit the ludicrous storylines they’ve already created. This is not going to work.”

“How do you know it won’t work?”

“Thirty-five years of experience. You have to trust my thirty-five years of experience.”

“Yeah, well you know what? Fuck you and your thirty-five years of experience! I’m calling The Chronicle.”

IF YOU DO THAT, OUR RELATIONSHIP IS OVER!” Ted yelled into the phone. I had never heard him sound so angry.

I hung up, seething. I looked up Chronicle reporter Ellen Huet’s cellphone number.

My finger, trembling in rage, hovered over her contact record in my phone. I clenched my teeth as it inched closer to the touchscreen. Suddenly—as if from a different, faraway world—my eye caught a glimpse of my rearview mirror. In it, I saw the arc of sandy beach and the frothy teal and white water surrounded by a perfectly-cloudless sky.

Could I live without blue sky over my head? Without my girls? Could my wife and daughter live without me? Could I risk the horrors of going to jail just because I felt it was time to tell my side of the story?

I took a deep breath and put the phone down.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

11 June 2012—74 days since the accident

There was now an enormous disparity between my two realities: my unremarkable, mostly-anonymous life of family, friends, work, and recreation versus my role-playing of the mad hatter of the cycling world getting digitally lynched eight ways to Sunday. Time and time again, I felt trapped between those two worlds. Somehow I was able to operate tactically between them, but I felt firmly connected to neither. Today a third reality materialized, as I left the world in which I thought I would never get charged and entered the world in which I had received a felony complaint from The People of the State of California.

Ted called me at work to tell me that Gascón had decided to charge me with the most severe vehicular manslaughter charge—a felony—the one that involves recklessness and wanton disregard for public safety and carries a jail term of two to six years. Ted explained that on Thursday—since it’s a good media day—the DA would issue a press release, undoubtedly igniting another onslaught of hateful comments and death threats directed at me and my family. At least this time we had a few days to prepare.

“You’re going to need to self-surrender and get booked,” Ted explained. “You’ll have to wait around for a while in a cell while they do background checks and fingerprinting and stuff. Then you’ll need to post bail. I’ve set up a meeting with a semi-retired bail bondsman who will help you arrange that. Then, you’re going to get arraigned. That will be your first of many court appearances. There will be media there—TV crews. The most important thing is that you do not say anything and, no matter what, do not look at, speak to, or touch the cameramen under any circumstances.”

Ted lost me back when he said “felony” and again when he said “jail.” I felt dizzy, numb, and nauseated.

“I know it’s a lot, Chris. And it’s going to get worse for a few days, then things will settle down again. I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

“Thank you, Ted. I’m sorry too. And you know what? I’m really glad you’re on my team. We’re really putting our best foot forward, and yet we just seem to lose one fight after another; maybe it’s time for the tide to turn a little in our favor. You know, I’m still pretty scared about this whole jail thing. I’ve never gone to jail before. In fact, I don’t think I even know anyone who’s ever gone to jail.”

“I know, it’s scary, but you’ll get through it. Come in tomorrow and we’ll walk you through the booking process. Then you can meet with the bail bondsman.”

All of a sudden, Carroll and I had a lot to do. First, we needed to flee—again. We left work, took our daughter out of school, made arrangements for our aging dog, and found another cheap hotel, this time in Pacifica, until the local media coverage had dispersed.

I figured the TV crews probably wouldn’t bother to come to our home—because they knew that soon they could corner me in the Hall of Justice—but my first concern was for my family. We decided it was better to be safe than sorry.

A dense, damp fog filled the parking lot as I unloaded my family and bags into another budget hotel. As I watched my girls and their luggage glide through the fog, I saw the head of my daughter’s favorite stuffy sticking out from a bag. It’s so he can breathe, Daddy, Ashley once told me.

I silently made a promise: I will do whatever it takes to keep Gascón from taking me away from my family.

Whatever it takes.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

13 June 2012—76 days since the accident

Per Monday’s agreed-upon plan, Carroll and I drove to the offices of Arguedas, Cassman & Headley to meet with Vinnie Caruso. Vinnie looked more like a caricature of a bail bondsman than an actual one—he had the olive-toned skin of a Southern Italian, slicked-back silver hair, and a meticulously-shaped horseshoe mustache. He looked straight out of The Sopranos, right down to the gold chain and silver and blue tracksuit.

Ted introduced the three of us, as Carroll and I took a seat across from Vinnie around a corner of the conference room table. When Vinnie spoke, his gangster façade melted completely. His warm smile and deliberate tone put us all at ease. Ted left a check for $12,000, made payable to Caruso Bail Bonds, on the table and left the room. The check was drawn on the escrow account that Carroll and I had been funding since a few days after the accident and that ACH Law had been holding for safekeeping. $10,000 of it was from the sale of my 10-year-old car.

Vinnie handed us several pages of documents as he slowly spelled out the terms of our agreement. We would pay him $12,000 in cash, which amounted to 9% of the $150,000 bail amount, the standard fee charged by bail bond businesses. Ted had negotiated with ADA Sharon Woo to cut the original proposed bail of $300,000 in half because I wasn’t considered a flight risk. Nonetheless, Vinnie had to explain that should I fail to appear in court when my presence was requested, or should I suddenly become difficult to reach, a “bounty hunter” would come find me. I solemnly signed the paperwork. At this point, shit started to feel really scary.

Vinnie lowered the pitch and the volume of his voice. He spoke even more slowly and deliberately as he started to describe the felony booking process, set to take place the following morning. I should dress casually and bring nothing but an ID: no keys, no wallet, no belt, not even my shoelaces. I would turn myself over to Inspector Cadigan at precisely 10 a.m., who would then confiscate and log what few possessions I still had, handcuff me behind my back, and lead me into jail. They would log me into the system, fingerprint me, put me in a cell, and hold me for a few hours. During this time, they would check my fingerprints against statewide, national, and global criminal databases. Finally, they would confirm that Caruso Bail Bonds had paid the $150,000 bounty on my head, and then send me on my way.

Vinnie instructed me not to speak to anyone unless spoken to while in jail. If someone should question me, I needed to give short, simple answers and end the conversation. I wasn’t sure if Vinnie was referring to the prisoners or to the guards—or if it even mattered.

At this point, Carroll began to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder, though it didn’t seem to help.

The air in the room started to feel heavy and thick, like an old, smoky bar. Following my habit of attempting to diffuse deep predicaments with humor, I tried to put everyone at ease with a half-assed joke.

“I guess I won’t be making any new friends tomorrow,” I said.

Vinnie laughed, playing along. “Well, I have some good news. After you get back home, you can take a two-hour shower, and it will feel like the best shower of your entire life.”

Vinnie smiled at me and patted me on the back. “You know, I like to bike too. I just got me one of those new hybrids.”

“Good for you. You live out by Mt. Diablo right? I grew up riding those trails and roads.”

“Yes, indeed. Lots of good riding country. You know, Chris, it’s really sad what you’re going through. I wish you the best.”

“Thanks, Vinnie. Great meeting you, and thanks for taking care of me and my family.”

“No worries. Good luck tomorrow. Remember: short, simple answers and no eye contact.”

Carroll and I shook his hand and we left, my imagination running wild about what on earth the next day—my first day in jail—was going to entail. But there was no time to reflect; we had tactical issues to address. We had left the hotel in Pacifica behind and didn’t yet have a place to spend the night. I knew I needed to get a good night’s sleep.

Because tomorrow I was going to jail.


>> Continue to PART IV: Cooperating with the Authorities


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash PART II: Dirty Laundry

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 II: Dirty Laundry

CHAPTER TEN

5 April 2012, 2:00pm—7 days since the accident

Today things continued feeling pretty surreal, but still under control. Though my teeth still didn’t line up correctly when I bit down and my bruise was turning into a horror show, my road rash had mostly healed and my head no longer ached or throbbed. My mind seemed to be functioning correctly, but as is the case with head injuries, it was hard to know when it hadn’t.

Besides, I had bigger problems to deal with than my injuries. An elderly man had died and—right or wrong—I was being blamed for it.

According to a TV news broadcast, the man, Sutchi Hui, had attempted to cross the street with his wife, Betty, on March 29, hurrying to catch a northbound 24 Divisadero bus to go pick up some eyeglasses. I was pretty sure I entered on a late yellow light and I had a lifetime of safe cycling behind me. I knew in my heart I had done everything I could do to avoid an accident while trying to exit that intersection.

Based on those feelings alone, I was pretty sure that several pedestrians crossed incorrectly, causing the accident—though I had no evidence to prove that. Criminal charges seemed far-fetched, but nonetheless, the hubbub about this in the media may have caused some ears to perk up in law enforcement. Maybe not all the cops and DAs would agree with Inspector Cadigan that this was “no big deal.”

At least I had hired some great attorneys. And Ted Cassman’s partner, Cris Arguedas, had eased my mind a bit. If my post-concussion email did fall into the wrong hands, Cris reassured me that it didn’t contain any incriminating statements.

However, things did not remain calm for long. While sitting at my terminal at work in San Bruno, IFTTT alerts came pouring in. I don’t know who first broke the story, but all at once, the news was everywhere. The Examiner, the Chronicle, and the weeklies ran headlines like Cyclist Who Struck Pedestrian At Castro: “I Just Plowed Through The Crowded Crosswalk.” Sentences like these, culled from my email, appeared all over the web. Nowhere were my words ever called an email; nowhere was it mentioned that the content currently going viral was only intended for my mom, my dad, a few close buddies, and my cycling teammates. Nor was it mentioned that I wasn’t of sound mind when I wrote it. Nor that Sutchi Hui was alive and, according to local papers, expected to make a full recovery at the time. Instead, I was now the asshole cyclist discussing the man I killed online, blogging, and defending my actions—after his death, morning my “dead” helmet instead of the dead pedestrian.

This is really fucked up.

Within minutes of the first IFTTT alert, my phone started ringing off the hook with numbers I didn’t recognize. I had to put it in airplane mode to make it stop. I checked the local news sites, and comments came surging in every couple of seconds—including many long-winded diatribes about being wronged by two-wheeled maniacs—and one simple profundity: “Now can we blame the cyclist?”

People seemed to think that my email somehow proved I was going too fast and/or cycling recklessly, even though it stated that I had a yellow light and that pedestrians filled up the crosswalk before I could finish crossing. So much for having the right of way until clearing the intersection.

When the media—print, TV news, and social—latched on to my post-concussive email, extracting catchy phrases like “way too committed to stop” and “plowed through the crowded crosswalk,” it confirmed and reinforced the prevailing narrative that everything was my fault. My high-on-painkillers attempt at protective humor was being stripped of all context and used to convict me in the court of public opinion.

At the same time, a curious thing started happening on the Mission Cycling email list. A dozen or so guys I had ridden with wrote to me privately to say how sorry they were about the accident, and they expressed their gratitude that I wasn’t more seriously hurt, along with their sympathies for the elderly man and his family. That’s what I would expect from my teammates, though it was surprising that it had to be off-list. They seemed willing to express their sympathies, but not publicly. Simultaneously, a few other cyclists from the Mission Cycling email list with whom I had never ridden—let alone even met—chastised me for my “reckless” riding, calling me an embarrassment to the team and telling me to “lawyer up.”

It was time to clear the air with MC’s leadership.

I found an empty conference room and dialed Aleph Vanderwall, one of a handful of Mission Cycling riders I knew from prior work connections. He got me in touch with Dylan DiBona, one of the two guys who devoted enormous amounts of time and energy into operating and managing the team. I had ridden with Dylan a few times, but I didn’t know him well enough to have his cell phone number. The other team coordinator, Kevin LaKritz, I barely knew at all. Dylan picked up.

“Dylan, it’s Chris. Aleph V. gave me your number.”

“Man, Chris, you’ve gotten yourself into some serious shit.”

“I know. We have a big problem here. Obviously somebody—or several somebodies—cross-posted the email I sent only to my mom and dad, a few cycling buddies, and the team list; now, it’s all over the news.”

“What the hell were you thinking sending that email?”

“I’m sorry, man. The best answer I have is that I wasn’t. I was probably still in shock, and my head was spinning from the concussion. I never should have taken two Percocet. I never should have sat down in front of the computer. I never should have cc’d the team! I’m really sorry I dragged us all into this.”

“The problem is that it’s not just the team; there are close to a thousand people on the MC email list.”

“What? Are you kidding me? I thought it was just active members, like no more than 150—”

“It’s closer to a thousand.”

Jesus. So we’ll never know how it got out. I saw the email turn up on MTBR and SF2G; at that point, it was as good as on the front page of the paper.”

“It’s also possible that someone from the media plucked it right from Google’s email archive of the list.”

“The archive is public?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, fuck, really? You need to change that setting to private!”

“I will.”

“And will you please also delete the email and all the replies from the archive? That will at least prevent people from linking to it.”

“Yes, I can take care of that.”

“And can you please tell people to stop talking about this on the email list? It only fuels the fire in the media.”

“Look, Chris. I’m not going to moderate the list or ban people from saying things. I’ll ask people to pipe down out of respect for the deceased, but I can’t guarantee that it will work.”

“That’s more than enough. Thank you. Now there’s one last thing: How do we handle my relationship with the team? It’s getting ugly out there. People are saying this whole thing was my fault, that I was reckless, and there are rumors circulating about charges, like for that last guy, Randy Ang.”

“Yeah, I know about Randy. You’re both all over the news.”

“And so is Mission Cycling. You guys need to distance yourself from me. I was a card-carrying member in 2011—but, wait! Have you sent the dues request email for 2012 yet?”

“Yeah, we sent it a while ago. Why?”

“Well, there’s your out! I never got that email. I didn’t pay my dues, so even though I ride with the team twice a week, that doesn’t make me a member. So why don’t you just disown me? I don’t want to take the team down with this ship.”

“Fine. We’ll tell people you’re not a member.”

“Thank you, Dylan. And again, I’m sorry. Let’s hope this will contain some of the damage.”

“Let’s hope.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

5 April 2012, 5pm—7 days since the accident

A few hours later, the following text appeared on Mission Cycling’s website:

We feel it’s necessary to express what we know about the horrible accident that occurred on Market and Castro last Thursday the 29th. We’ve learned about this incident the same way that everyone else has, through a post on the Google group message board and through the reporting of that incident that is happening now. We were shocked to learn not only that this accident occurred, but also by the rider’s response to it in the post.

It should be noted that Chris Bucchere is not a member of Mission Cycling. He isn’t now and he wasn’t at the time of this accident. His reckless riding on that day is completely antithetical to the way we go about our sport. We don’t condone dangerous riding in any way. We believe it’s better to ride calmly and safely so you can enjoy a great ride with friends than to ride recklessly and jeopardize your health and the health of those around you.

Given the way this event is being reported, it’s also worth mentioning that Bucchere was alone at the time this happened and not part of any official club event. The mailing list this was posted to exists solely to allow the broader cycling community to communicate about cycling events and related topics. It was by no means an official Mission Cycling members list. Chris Bucchere’s post came as a surprise and shock to all of us who read it.

As our members and larger community of friends know, our goal with Mission Cycling has always been to promote a safe and positive approach the sport of cycling so that more people could be encouraged to try it. We believe cycling is a beautiful sport and, when done right, extremely safe. We also believe that in creating a supportive community around the sport we can most effectively spread a more positive relationship between cyclists and their surroundings. There simply is no place or reason for reckless riding.

This accident is awful and tragic. We would like to express our deepest sympathy for the family of the victim.

I had asked to be disowned, but I didn’t expect to be condemned! So now, despite being on the team for a year and riding with them hundreds of times, the sport of “non-reckless cycling” belonged to Mission Cycling riders—and not to me.

My “recklessness” was simply taken for granted and assumed to be true—even by the leadership of my own (now former) team.

Suddenly, I felt a vibration in my pocket. It was my father-in-law calling.

“Dad!”

“Chris, my goodness, this is quite a mess you’re in.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Look, there’s something I want to mention,” he said, getting straight down to business, as he was wont to do. “You don’t have to act on it, not now or ever. Just hear me out.”

I gave him my full attention.

“You’ve got a tremendous amount of content on the internet. Facebook, multiple blogs, Twitter accounts, Strava rides, and all sorts of other writings I’m sure I don’t know about. Based on how hostile the media coverage is, journalists are probably already poring through all the content you’ve published, trying to draw false conclusions about your past that will help them illustrate your ‘recklessness.’” I could hear the air-quotes around “recklessness” even through the phone.

“That’s a good point. I hadn’t really looked at all that as a liability. I’ve never even blogged about cycling, and I’ve got nothing to hide in those Strava tracks—you know what a safe rider I am.”

“Yes, but you have no way of knowing how that data will be used and how your words will be twisted and taken out of context. The way I see it is that you have nothing to lose by taking the content down—and potentially a lot to lose by leaving it out there.”

“Thanks, Dad. That’s good advice. I’ll think about it.”

I pushed this latest thought—should I disappear myself from the internet?—on top of the stack, shoving all my other twisted, frantic thoughts, emotions, and paranoid fantasies down a bit. Just then a new thought emerged and took priority over all the others.

I need to study that intersection, ASAP.

CHAPTER TWELVE

5 April 2012, 9:30pm—7 days since the accident

By the time I had come home from work, figured out dinner, and helped my wife put our daughter to bed, it was already late, but the Castro was hopping. Moments earlier, I had affixed a zip-tie to one of the spokes on the front wheel of my commuter bike. Every time the zip-tie hit the fork, it made a solid clicking sound, indicating one full rotation of the wheel, effectively turning my bike into a linear measuring device.

I rotated the zip-tie away from the spokes and rode my bike down the hill to the intersection of Market and Castro, located less than a mile from the tiny bungalow above Dolores Park I shared with Carroll and Ashley. I adjusted the zip-tie, then starting from the southern line of the southern crosswalk (near the underground MUNI station), I walked the bike north, parallel to the western crosswalk, all the way up to the limit line a few feet north of the northern line of the northern crosswalk (near the gas station), counting each click. I repeated this three times. Two times I counted the same number of clicks; once I was off by one.

Next, I crossed the southern crosswalk, heading west to east, from the MUNI underground station to the 24 bus stop, in the same direction as Sutchi Hui and his wife, counting each click.

Once I was satisfied with these measurements, I took a seat upon the stone wall in front of the Twin Peaks Tavern, keeping my bike within arm’s reach. Holding my phone in my hand with the stopwatch running, I measured the yellow phase of the traffic lights in question, the ones that control north/south traffic on Castro Street as it crosses Market Street. I got a slew of different readings before I learned to anticipate the timing correctly.

Finally, I felt I had run the test enough times to settle on a three-and-a-half-second yellow. When the yellow changed to red, an “all red” phase kicked in for another three and a half seconds, which I also painstakingly timed over and over until I was confident in my measurements. Both the yellow and “all red” phases lasted for exactly three and a half seconds, as far as I could tell with my phone’s stopwatch.

I studied the lights some more, this time qualitatively. I noticed that during the three-and-a-half-second “all red” phase, all the vehicle signals in every direction turned red and remained solid red, and all the pedestrian signals displayed DON’T WALK in every direction. In other words, the “all red” phase—at least in theory—acted as a buffer that activated after every red light to keep all opposing vehicles and pedestrians from entering the intersection until all vehicles and pedestrians had exited it. City traffic engineers undoubtedly had used some kind of formula to compute the timing for this delay. The formula had probably factored in the length of the intersection, the speed limit, and perhaps also the empirical average speed through the intersection.

I also observed and recorded what happened when three and a half seconds had transpired: The traffic lights controlling east/west traffic on Market Street turned green in unison with the WALK indicators—the red upraised hand changed to a white walking biped—those glyphs ostensibly controlling the movement of the pedestrians who somehow filled up the crosswalk directly in front of me as I tried to exit the southern end of the intersection.

As I rode back up to our tiny house on Cumberland Street, I thought about the “all red” phase (or “delayed green,” as it is sometimes called). I entered on a yellow light. Admittedly, it was a very late yellow light, but as far as the law goes, yellow means yellow.

Assuming that I entered on the very last instant of the yellow, the “all red” phase would still have granted me an additional three and a half seconds of a car- and pedestrian-free intersection before the east-westbound cars and pedestrians would get their green light and WALK symbol. It may not sound like much, but three and a half seconds is a comparatively long “all red” delay. Although many of the large, dangerous Market Street intersections feature similar light timings, I don’t know of delays this long being used elsewhere in the city.

From my memory of the seconds before the crash, I knew that multiple people converged upon me, coming from both sides. I remember seeing a gap and then, to my horror, watching it close right in front of me.

Now in possession of some data about the signals in the intersection, I was able to come up with a new hypothesis: Several of the pedestrians, including the man who died and his wife, all had crossed well ahead of the WALK symbol—and by “well ahead” I estimated at least three seconds before they were lawfully allowed to do so. In other words, several pedestrians had started crossing approximately when my light turned red, three and a half seconds before they received their WALK indicator. So even though the pedestrians had been in a crosswalk, they were jaywalking, since the California Vehicle Code states that when DON’T WALK is displayed, “no pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal.”

When I got home, I measured the diameter of my wheel, including the tire, and multiplied by pi. That, times the number of clicks, gave me the width of the intersection from north to south, which came out to approximately 150 feet. The southern crosswalk measured forty-six feet wide, or twenty-three feet counting only my lane. If the opposite lane was occupied by a northbound bus, as was mentioned in that letter to The Examiner editor and corroborated by Betty Hui on the evening news, then that would have left me twenty-three lateral feet, or only about ten feet on each side of me. A handful of people—coming from two different directions with each person moving at a different speed—had created a deathtrap for me and for anyone else I couldn’t avoid.

Those three and a half “all red” seconds—during which time opposing pedestrians and vehicles were expected to remain stationary on the curb or behind the limit line, respectively—were absolutely critical to keeping an intersection this wide safe. One hundred fifty feet was a long way to travel in three and a half seconds. In fact, a vehicle traveling at the speed limit (twenty-five miles per hour, or about thirty-six and a half feet per second) would only traverse about 128 feet before the “all red” ends and the pedestrians get their WALK symbol in the opposing direction.

Satellite photo from Google Maps, with added markings to show measurements. “a” marks the approximate location of the collision.

That means the engineer who designed the light timings for this area had cut it dangerously close at Market and Castro. They must have assumed that three and a half seconds of all red plus a second or two of reaction time, would allow enough time for vehicles traveling at around the speed limit to clear the intersection safely—before pedestrian and vehicle cross-traffic started to fill in from opposing directions. But would those timings work for bicycles as well, who may have been traveling at lower speeds?

I’m sure that most of the time—if the pedestrians always obeyed the WALK indicator and drivers never ran the red light—vehicles were given approximately five seconds (three and a half seconds delay plus a second and a half reaction time) to exit the intersection while it remained clear. At twenty-five miles per hour, five seconds buys the driver (or cyclist) 182.5 feet, putting the car (or bike) two car lengths’ past the line demarcating the southern edge of the southern crosswalk, well on its way, collision-free.

In other words, the traffic engineers had assumed that the three-and-a-half-second delay was long enough to allow vehicles that catch a late yellow to clear the intersection before the WALK indicator turned on. Likewise, I assumed that the pedestrians would obey the WALK indicator—or, if they had chosen to jaywalk and enter the crosswalk early—that they would have at least looked both ways to check for cross traffic.

The pedestrians, whether or not they had a WALK symbol, also must have assumed the intersection was clear of vehicles. Simply put: There was a whole lot of assuming going on.

And everyone knows what happens when we assume.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

5 April 2012, 11:00pm—7 days since the accident

When I got home from my measuring and timing exercise at Market and Castro, I should have gone to bed, but I felt too wired to sleep. Rather than letting another surreal day come to an end, I sat down in front of my computer.

As I sifted through the ongoing battle royale raging amid the comment forums on all the local news sites, weeklies, and local blogs, my mind ran in a million different directions. Suddenly, my mental gymnastics came to an abrupt halt. I had solved the puzzle: The final missing piece was the “all red.”

Let’s assume that I entered the intersection at the very last instant of yellow, right before it turned red. Captain Casciato made a strong implication that the pedestrians and I entered at the same time. Did that mean that pedestrians jumped the WALK symbol by three and a half seconds? The “all red” delay should have allowed my clear passage through the intersection—as long as the DON’T WALK symbols were respected by the pedestrians.

At this juncture, I felt some amount of relief knowing that, if Captain Casciato was telling the truth, several pedestrians had definitely jumped their WALK indicator, and they had done so egregiously.

But whatever relief I felt from this revelation dissipated as I dove back into the internet comment forums. The debate was still heated, but already getting old.

If only bikes needed to have licenses, then they could be held accountable! But what about little Bobby who’s only twelve and rides on the sidewalk—does he need a license? Cars kill so many more people than bikes—why is this story getting all the attention when cars do so much more damage?

The commenters peppered their generalizations with micro-vignettes that represented one or another version of the following: One time, this cyclist blew a stop sign and nearly hit me while I was crossing the crosswalk, and I want the DA to go after this guy to send a message to all those scofflaw cyclists.

Someone who gets hit by a car would never think to blame all drivers for their carelessness. Yet how quickly people jumped to the conclusion that this reckless, speeding, red-light running monster represented all cyclists. Behind a cloak of pseudonymity, the cycle of accusation and condemnation continued, seemingly without end.

Suddenly, all this gobbledygook swirling around in my head vanished when I saw my very own words appear on Twitter—not put there by me. “Take risks. There’s plenty of time to make mistakes, learn from them, and start over again stronger and better off than you were before.”

What. The. Fuck?

A few Google searches later, I traced the source of this tweet to someone excerpting from a transcript of a 2002 interview I gave with the Stanford Career Development Center. With the “career advice” context removed, it made me sound like a risk-taker, when in fact, I had been encouraging recent grads to join startups rather than big companies early in their careers.

Every character I had ever typed on the internet, every tweet, every forum post, every blog post, every website to which I had contributed—relevant or not—could now be used against me.

My father-in-law was right: I needed to disappear from the internet.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

6 April 2012, 1:00am—8 days since the accident

The evening waned, midnight came and went, and a new day began as I sat, hunched over my computer, hunting down and exterminating every last trace of my digital self. As my father-in-law had said, each tentacle of my far-reaching online identity had become a liability.

I had been running my own businesses since 2002. But years before that, I began establishing myself and, later, my employees as experts in a family of enterprise software products. My team and I were frequent contributors to online forums, user groups, and conferences. I wrote hundreds of blog and forum posts, providing code samples and other technical advice. I spoke at conferences, and clips of my speaking engagements had often been posted online. Now those clips had been defaced with comments like, “Who did you kill today, you fat fuck?” and, “Nice shirt, murderer.”

I hastily deleted all my personal and professional websites, videos, and blog posts, wiping out the abusive graffiti along with them. I nuked my Facebook and Twitter accounts and scores of other sites that contained my personal information. If I couldn’t delete my accounts, I marked over all my data with Xs. Then I submitted more than 400 individual content removal requests to Google to make sure that no trace of this stuff could be dredged up from the search engine’s cache.

I didn’t have control over all the nonsense being produced about me by others, but at least I could stop the bleeding when it came to my own content. As I did so, I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I was protecting myself—but I was jeopardizing my professional reputation at the same time.

The sky had already started to glow with pre-dawn blues by the time I had finished my first pass. I knew I would need to spend many more hours following up on the content removal requests to make sure they were honored. I also needed to reach out to other people to ask them to take down their own content in which I appeared, before it was defiled by hate speech from trolls. For each account I deleted, I reopened the same account eponymously to claim the space before it could be hijacked by potential identity thieves. I emailed a professional photographer friend of mine, asking him to share a cease-and-desist letter that I could send to TV networks and websites that were unlawfully using photo and video copyrighted by me.

My content would never be completely gone from the internet, but I had made it very difficult to dig up anything that could be used to support the foregone conclusion that I was a monster.

This mass deletion meant that the internet footprint I had been creating for years was also gone. All that remained of me was what the media had created—a reckless, negligent cyclist who ran a red light, carelessly slaughtered a pedestrian, and then raced home to blog about how he cared more about his helmet than the man he killed.

I had inadvertently removed nearly everything positive about me—all my professional and personal contributions that showed I was, in fact, not a monster.

I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret this later, but I figured I probably would.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

6 April 2012, 7:00am—8 days since the accident

After just a few hours of sleep, I awoke feeling even more paranoid about the media and the internet in general, which seemed to be conspiring to bring ruin upon me and my family. I told work I was coming in late. I needed to run a few errands.

My first stop was an ATM on Castro Street, two blocks from where the accident took place. I swiped my card four times and withdrew $3,200.

Next stop: a mobile phone provider’s retail store, where I purchased two pay-as-you-go flip phones registered under fake names. I paid in cash. These phones could be reloaded, using cash, at any of the provider’s stores. This was about the closest I could get to private communications.

Next stop: a big-box electronics store to buy a four-camera video surveillance system of my own. I hoped the TV news wasn’t going to show up on my doorstep, but I wanted to be prepared in case they did.

Last stop: emergency survival backpacks for each member of the family.

As I drove down 280, I called a family friend and asked her if she would pick up our aging dog in case we had to leave town suddenly. Carroll and I had each already packed an overnight bag, plus one for Ashley. We had left a car parked outside the mouth of the cul-de-sac on which we lived, so we couldn’t be blocked in. If we needed to disappear, we’d turn our iPhones off, stop using credit cards, and meet at a predetermined rendezvous point nearby, but outside the city. We tried to eliminate the need to communicate as much as possible, but if we had to, we always had the flip phones. We weren’t taking any chances.

Feeling a bit more ready for what might come, I started mental preparations for another conversation I needed to have with Ted Cassman. No matter how many times I ran the numbers—the 150 feet, the three-and-a-half-second “all red,” the pedestrians closing in from both sides—I could not envision any scenarios that would have given the pedestrians the right of way. Despite what the media was saying, I was pretty sure that the pedestrians caused this accident, which could have been avoided if they had simply obeyed the DON’T WALK symbol or bothered to look for cross traffic before starting to cross.

My freedom might just depend on being able to prove it.

I arrived at the office, but before clocking in, I caught up on the latest developments on the internet. Amid the media furor, a small handful of very vocal commenters—all but one complete strangers to me—challenged the veracity of the prevailing narrative by asking questions: What actual color was my light? What color was the WALK/DON’T WALK indicator for the pedestrians? How fast was I actually going? How many people were in that southern crosswalk? Doesn’t the “blog post” imply that the pedestrians entered too soon?

When these concerns about separating “fact” from “allegation” got posted to sfgate.com, they were buried by hateful comments from trolls.

Exasperated, I stepped away from the online shouting matches and tried to focus on work.


Later in the afternoon, two emails and a text message from people I didn’t know arrived on my phone.

This media lashing is becoming too personal. I need to look out for the safety of my family. I need to make sure that they don’t end up on TV.

I headed back to my cube after a meeting broke up, wondering if something new in the media had prompted those threats.

In a story on sfgate.com, I found out that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition had set up a pop-up outreach booth at Market and Guerrero to remind people that they “do not condone reckless behavior” and “pedestrians always have the right of way.”

This may have been well-intentioned, but it flew in the face of everything I knew about the California Vehicle Code. I’ve known since my teens that pedestrians do not always have the right of way. Just like it is for vehicles, pedestrian right of way is entirely situation-dependent. Pedestrians don’t have any form of right of way on interstate highways, nor when they disobey traffic signals, nor when they jump out suddenly into harm’s way, nor when they cross outside of a crosswalk or intersection, nor when they cross when there are “vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown.”

Suddenly an alert came in from a local blog called San Francisco Citizen.

I feared these alerts the most. Corporate media definitely spin the facts, but they usually can’t get away with claims that are demonstrably false. Bloggers, however, are not subject to that limitation.

James Herd, the blogger behind sfcitizen.com, took a screenshot of a page from Strava’s website and marked it up. He then linked my accident to an unrelated cycling death that took place in 2009. The only connection between these two events was that the other cyclist Kim Flint and I—like millions of other cyclists and athletes—both used the same online tracking system, Strava, to record our workouts. Herd’s theory was that Strava had somehow influenced my behavior while descending Castro Street—that it had a hand in causing the death of Sutchi Hui.

Since joining Strava in 2010, I had posted hundreds of rides and runs—including the morning of March 29th. I posted all of my rides and runs on Strava, even my short commutes. I like keeping track of my fitness data, not just for sentimental reasons but because I like to analyze it. Strava let me see how I was doing versus my PR (Personal Record) or versus the KOM (King of the Mountain). Strava is not a racing system; it’s a tracking system. But that’s not the way Herd spun it.

According to Herd, Strava pitted riders against themselves or other riders, scofflaws ignoring the rules of the road while racing for street cred. His claim was a misrepresentation, if not a perversion, of what fitness tracking programs actually do.

After Herd published this false connection, the weeklies and local papers picked up the story and ran with it. It didn’t take long for a heated debate to ensue: Strava is turning our fair city into a racecourse for cyclists!

As my phone lit up with alerts leading to stories all over the web about how I was racing against other people—or myself—on Strava, angry mobs of commenters swarmed in, unleashing I-told-you-so screeds. I was having trouble keeping up and, at the same time, trying to stay focused on work.

Then my phone rang. It was a neighbor calling to tell me that he had spotted two news vans—with telescoping antennae and all—loitering near our home. That was the tipping point.

I thanked the neighbor for the warning, hung up, and then sent a text to my wife. “911” it read. When I received the same text back from her, I put the iPhone in airplane mode, turned on my pay-as-you-go flip phone, stuffed my laptop into my bag, and high-tailed it down to my car.

It was time to get the hell out of Dodge.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

6 April 2012, 7:30pm—8 days since the accident

Bay Area residents don’t usually expect June gloom in early April, but nonetheless, a thick fog had descended upon the small, quirky beach town of Pacifica, just a few miles south of San Francisco. I waited in the parking lot of a hotel that bore a strong resemblance to the famous Del Coronado in San Diego. I didn’t want to use any of our expensive prepaid minutes, and I didn’t plan on turning on my iPhone’s radio features until the media had moved on, so I sat in silence, staring into the gray abyss, waiting for Carroll and Ashley to arrive per our predetermined evacuation plan. I couldn’t believe it had come to this.

After some time, I saw the familiar headlights of my wife’s car pierce through the fog. She pulled up, with our daughter buckled into her booster seat. I slid into the passenger seat of Carroll’s car, where I was greeted by a look of utter bewilderment on her face. Without saying a word, my wife’s expression conveyed one simple question: Has the world gone mad?

Too scared to return home and become fodder for the evening news, we booked a modest hotel in downtown Oakland, consolidated our overnight bags into the bigger car, and set off for the East Bay. Hours later, with our daughter fast asleep on a hotel-issue cot beside the room’s queen bed, my wife and I talked in muted tones about our new, frightening reality.

Throughout that day, my phone had interrupted me to bring updates on the narrative being woven. Reckless blogger/cyclist bemoans the death of his helmet after killing an innocent, law-abiding elderly pedestrian while racing on city streets. The stories took on lives of their own, racking up comment counts by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

I tried not to feel sorry for myself. A man had died, and somehow I lived. Yet as the accusations got more and more outlandish, I found myself thinking less about the man who died and his grieving family and more about defending myself from attacks from every direction.

They claim I’m a monster—and I’m starting to feel like one!

How frustrating it was to have the facts distorted and then spun out of control. The media had taken my email and removed all context—they called it a blog post, rather than an email to friends, teammates, and family. The changed allegory to fact. They made it sound like I wrote it after Mr. Hui died.

The result: Stupid, heartless cyclist says he cares more about his helmet than the pedestrian he killed while racing.

It was exactly what you would expect from the worst-case stereotype of a cyclist. I had to wonder—were they crafting precisely the cliché they knew their audience wanted? Was this just feeding the lions? Did no one care to get the facts right? Do facts even matter?

This story, despite its faults, delivered an outrageous—and effective—punchline. Before long, there were articles about how big of a story this was becoming. Yahoo News said I was “blowing up on the Web,” and indeed I was—internationally, even. I didn’t read all the comments this time; there were thousands and thousands of them, undoubtedly just various reprises of: See, I told you so. Cyclists are assholes!

In this moment, I became acutely aware of the awesome power of the media. They have the ability to craft narratives and the distribution channels to influence readers, watchers, and listeners. The HuffPost reported that the media coverage caught the attention of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Assistant DA  Omid Talai told the press that they had seen the “posts”—my email had seemingly multiplied into “posts”—and that they found them “troubling.” This was not at all surprising, given the spin with which they had been pitched.

In just a few short days, I had transitioned from being a nobody doing nothing all that interesting to a viral phenomenon whose infamy was severe enough to require a statement from law enforcement about it.

As our daughter slept, blissfully unaware, Carroll and I sat like shipwrecked companions in a tiny lifeboat and watched my reputation being decimated, scuttled by my own foolish words, cleverly re-told by the media. I had promised Ted I’d stay silent, but I felt like I had to say something.

Earlier that day, Ted had released a very terse statement that we co-wrote:

Chris is devastated by the accident last Thursday and by the tragic death of Sutchi Hui. Also injured in the accident, Chris gave a statement to the police while still receiving treatment at a hospital, and has continued to cooperate fully with their investigation. Chris believes that he entered the intersection lawfully and that he did everything possible to avoid the accident. His heart goes out to Mr. Hui’s wife and family for their loss.

But as the media gale raged all around us, I didn’t think that was enough. To that end, I wrote a detailed statement for the press. I revised it several times and, when I felt it reflected what I truly wanted and needed to say in the face of this tragedy and the vitriol being directed at me, I slept on it.

I went to bed no longer feeling like the monster I had been reading about—the one who shared a name with me. Speaking my mind brought me back to the family man I was, the one who cared deeply about the hurt inflicted upon another family and who wanted to tell the world that this was a huge mistake and that perhaps we could work together to do something productive about it.

Date: Apr 7, 2012, at 7:54 AM
To: Ted Cassman, Cristina Arguedas
From: Chris Bucchere
Subject: Turning the media attention into something positive

Hi Folks,

As you well know, we’re caught in the middle of a media firestorm. Yahoo! covered this on a national news blog and they make it look like a reckless hit and run, making no mentions of my evasive action, my injuries, or my claims of innocence. The public outcry is bigger than a tsunami. 3,500 people on yahoo are calling for blood. I’m getting death threats via email and SMS.

Putting my legal issues aside (and considering the fact that I might not actually have any legal issues), we have a PR disaster on our hands. I want to address that problem and I want to address it while there is so much negative energy focused on this story. Putting my head down and hiding behind my counsel may have worked before the days of social media, but I don’t think it’s a good idea now.

I would like to publish a longer statement in The Chronicle that takes the focus away from the facts of the case and redirects the focus on a call toward ending the vitriol and starting a fundraising campaign to fund an engineering and traffic study to improve the safety of that intersection. Do people really care this much about this story? Can they put their money where their mouths are? We’ll see. I will match contributions up to $10,000 and then donate the fund to the city’s public works department in Mr. Hui’s name while advocating fixing that intersection and/or other dangerous ones like Van Ness and Market or Octavia and Market.

Let’s turn the current internet meme of “kill Bucchere and all cyclists” into something positive. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

Ted’s name turned up on my cell phone within minutes of hitting send, even though it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. He didn’t mince words when he said: never in a million years. The message was too long, confusing, controversial, not at all media-proof, and generally just not appropriate. He didn’t stop there: This will make things a lot worse. There’s nothing we can do about the media. We have to keep our heads down and weather the storm, letting these things run their course. What matters is making sure you don’t get charged and we’re doing everything we can on that front.

And so on and so forth, Ted proceeded to talk me off the ledge. I reluctantly accepted his advice, so I never got to find out if this would-be press release would have made things better, made things worse, or kept things about the same. I tried to fight it. But in the end, my limited experience with the media couldn’t hold a candle to Ted’s thirty-year history tackling high-profile criminal defense cases; he knew that when it comes to the criminal justice system, rarely can any good come from a defendant’s interactions with the press. The potential for blowback was astronomically high.

Ted was probably right, but that didn’t make it any easier. Not being able to defend myself was torture.

The life and reputation I had worked for and created was being set on fire, and there was nothing I could do to extinguish it.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

8 April 2012—10 days since the accident

I awoke Sunday morning with that weird panic response of realizing that I was not in my own bed. Any traveler has had this experience—it’s easy to wake up in San Francisco and think you’re still in New York. But Oakland was still Oakland, and we were still holed up in a shitty hotel room, hiding from the media.

I would occasionally question the decision to avoid the media—ask why we shouldn’t face them, head on—I didn’t break any laws, and we have nothing to hide!—but invariably I would get rebuked by my wife, by Ted, or by my own sense of good judgment. I could not bear the thought of my family being ambushed by reporters and ending up on the nightly news.

Regardless, it still troubled me deeply that Ted wouldn’t allow me to talk to the media. But even if he did, what could I possibly say to them? The media seemed to have made up its mind, and I suspected that whatever came out of my mouth that didn’t support my role as villain would end up on the virtual editing room floor. The remaining juicy bits would be chopped up and inserted as sound bites right into the places where they needed me to sound dumb or heartless or reckless, making sure I stayed in-character.

“Even if you rescue a dozen babies from a burning orphanage right now, people are still going to hate you,” Ted told me. He was probably right.

Thinking about this stuff was beginning to drive me mad. I needed a break from the dramatization of my real life unfolding in the mainstream and social media. Because we had lied to our daughter and told her we were having a “fun weekend getaway,” we decided to take her to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. While the girls got ready, I went for a quick run around Lake Merritt.

Oakland, a true melting pot, bustled with all sorts of people. Throughout the run, I never had trouble navigating around them. But strangely, in Oakland’s Chinatown, I had to make several last-minute maneuvers on and off the street to make it through the few blocks without running into anyone. It could have been the density of the shops, or the fact that Chinatown was more crowded on this particular Sunday morning than the rest of downtown Oakland, or it could have been something else I observed: Most people, especially the elderly ones, seemed to stare directly at their feet while they were walking. Could there be a cultural component to my accident? I remembered my surprise when Jacques, the personal injury lawyer, assumed the pedestrian was Asian. But was he actually on to something?

Sure enough, a few Google searches back at the hotel turned up a study from 2010 that examined 7,354 traffic accidents in New York City, from 2002 to 2006, that resulted in serious injury or death. At all age groupings up to and including sixty-five years, pedestrians were hurt or killed at about the same rate, regardless of ethnicity, culture or gender. However, the study then stated, “Residents over 65 years of age in the Asian/Pacific Islander group have the highest fatality rate, 7.8 per 100,000 population, nearly double the average for the over-65 age group.” This was the only significant ethnicity-related conclusion drawn in the entire report.

I closed my laptop and loaded myself and my family into the car. For a few hours, we wandered through Fairyland, surrounded by eerie creations ostensibly put there to help fairy tales come to life. Meanwhile, the news media was bringing to life their own tale about me. What if this bizarre finding from NYC somehow became part of the story?

A short while later, at a restaurant, my daughter lost her very first tooth on a slice of flatbread, a special occasion for our young, one-child family. I tried to compartmentalize the thoughts swirling around in my head.

I had the law on my side and some pretty compelling statistics, too. But my daughter had lost her first tooth—I should be allowed to celebrate this. And yet, the poor family of the pedestrian must be in shock, grieving. I felt stuck between two worlds: my life as I once knew it with my wife, my daughter, and the milestone of losing her first tooth; and the dystopian version in which a reckless cyclist massacred an innocent pedestrian. Somehow, some part of me connected with and touched both worlds; yet I felt comfortable in neither.

We arrived back at the hotel, carefully-wrapped tooth in tow. I sent the study from NYC to Ted. He told me to forget I had ever read it.

“There will be a time and a place for you to say what you need to say, but for the time being, it’s still no comment.”

While the media continued to tell their fairy tale, we hid in a tiny hotel room, telling our daughter that we needed a vacation. All I could do was focus on clearing my name. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be in jail when my daughter lost her next tooth.

After lights out for the girls, I did a few more Google searches, my laptop’s screen providing the only illumination in the tiny room. It didn’t take me long to ascertain that the media situation had gone from bad, right through worse, and straight to downright horrible. The big story in the local papers was that a witness had come forward claiming that I blew through “several red lights and stop signs.”

Immediately I found this suspicious—first and foremost, because I knew for a fact that I hadn’t.

One of the lights the witness claimed I ran was at 15th Street, which controls traffic right in front of an elementary school. Not only was I sure I didn’t run that red light, I was sure I would never do anything so stupid and dangerous—at 8 a.m. on a weekday when there would be kids present and a crossing guard. To “race” through a red at such an intersection would be unconscionable, and certainly something I would never even consider. I was a parent of an elementary school student, for crissake!

And why is this witness coming forward now, ten days after the accident?

Also suspicious: There was only one stop sign on Castro Street from where it forks off from Divisadero, at 16th Street and Castro. Still, these allegations could be problematic. I needed to tell Ted.

The unnamed witness—who claimed I ran “several red lights and stop signs”—was worrisome, but he certainly wasn’t the only problem. More searching turned up another widely-reported fabrication, this one emerging from an online bike forum. They claimed I was riding a fixie—a fixed-gear bicycle with no brakes—and that’s what caused the accident.

But my road bike, currently in police custody, has brakes and gears.

These lies kept piling on, each one damaging my reputation and threatening my innocence in a different way, leaving me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. I needed to get some sleep, but it would be hours before I finished compulsively reading all the stories and many of the comments, which left me questioning the nature of humanity.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

9 April 2012 —11 days since the accident

Seeing as how the media volcano—which on Friday had erupted into national coverage—seemed to be simmering down, we felt cautiously optimistic about returning to our home on Cumberland Street after school and work. Other than the business cards of TV anchors from different news programs stuffed into the doorjamb, we didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. From what I’d seen on TV, at least one eager group of newscasters had dragged a camera crew up forty stairs to knock on the door of our temporarily-evacuated residence. Carroll and I shot each other a look. We dodged a bullet.

Is this what we do to people in the news, I thought, hound them in their homes and places of work, just to get a snippet of footage for the nightly broadcast? I felt a new sense of empathy for anyone in the public eye—for any reason.

Our homecoming turned out to be uneventful, but another problem soon reared its ugly head. Ever since the story had gone national, thousands upon thousands of enraged comments had flooded the internet. Too committed to stop? Typical hipster cyclist attitude. Cyclists never follow the law—this guy’s the perfect example. I hear they like those cyclist bitches with shaved legs in jail. With each big wave of media coverage came more death threats.

I knew the media had manipulated the story to produce maximum outrage, so it was hard to blame people for their anger. Still, did they really have to go this far?

My first inclination was to do nothing. These people are just blowing off steam, I thought. They’re not going to act out their insane violent fantasies.

My wife felt differently. She was genuinely scared for herself and Ashley—scared to live under our own roof, where we were sitting ducks for whoever might come looking.

Not really knowing what to do, I called Ted. We quickly dispensed with the pleasantries.

“People are sending threatening emails and text messages to me and Carroll. Lots of them.”

“I’m so sorry Chris.” He said it like he really meant it—and I believed he did. “How many?”

“Maybe a dozen emails, a couple of texts, and some suspicious phone calls—no voicemails.”

“Don’t respond to any of them and send them all to me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You also need to print them and file a police report.”

“Wait a minute. You want me to talk to the police?”

“Yes, but don’t tell them anything about the accident. If they ask about it, just tell them to refer to the existing case file or contact me if they have any questions. Tell them as little as possible, just enough so that they’re able to file a report on the threats.”

I had very little experience dealing with police and even less dealing with the criminal justice system, but from my education and my career, I had developed a healthy distrust of any authority, especially any kind of authority that presents itself in uniform. Badges and uniforms disrupt the balance of power. Inspector Cadigan, by dressing in plain clothes and downplaying the accident with her assurances, had gotten me to open up and talk about the events that day. In retrospect, I should have said only one word to her, the only word anyone should ever say to anyone in law enforcement: “lawyer.” If only I hadn’t hit my head so hard.

In light of these circumstances, it felt very strange to invite an SFPD officer into my home, but I went through with it on Ted’s advice and asked the officer to take and file a report. I had to explain to him why people were threatening me and my family, but the minute he started asking probing questions about the accident, I asked him to leave. I was polite and courteous, but not exactly hospitable.

Leaving this personal matter in the hands of the SFPD made me queasy, but short of going into hiding and taking my family with me, there seemed to be little else I could do.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

April 10, 2012 —12 days since the accident

Today I was greeted by a rousing condemnation from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. It made sense that they would trash me—the SFBC believes the common misconception that pedestrians have the right of way, period. But even those who should have known better—the police, the DA’s office, Walk SF, Mission Cycling, and the media, social and otherwise—followed suit by summarily disparaging me and my actions and words. It was hard to take, especially because I was almost certain that I hadn’t broken any laws.

I imagined these condemnations to be a house of cards, all of which would soon come toppling down. The moment the authorities measured the intersection, did the math, and arrived at the conclusion that I was swarmed by a crowd of jaywalkers after challenging a yellow light, all the angst would be put to rest, and this entire affair would blow over, with apologies from all sides for the many different misunderstandings.

My optimism, however delusional, was bolstered by a tweet that my internet dragnet turned up the day prior. It was from another cyclist (whom I didn’t know) who tweeted the following observation shortly after sfcitizen.com’s fake Strava meme went viral. While it wasn’t enough to shut down the idea of cyclists “racing” through the city streets, it did point out that my average speed over three trips down that hill was fourteen miles per hour, hardly race-worthy.

Whatever positive feelings I had met an abrupt end on my drive home from work that evening. On my radio—tuned to the all-news station KCBS, as it had been on every car ride since the accident—I heard a teaser for a story about me. I flipped on my phone’s recording device and listened to a very concerned-sounding Holly Quan reporting on the twelve-day old accident, interspersed with the voice of a man who turned out to be George Gascón, San Francisco’s District Attorney.

George Gascón: “We’re still in the process of reviewing all this.”

Holly Quan: “The key, he says, is whether there was simple negligence, meaning a violation of traffic laws, or gross negligence characterized by wanton disregard, something that could be charged as a felony.”

GG: “I don’t want to be conclusive about that, but it certainly begins to appear that way.”

GG: “You know eyewitnesses are a key to this, right? Because it gives us the context of the ability to be able to see whether the bad behavior was just localized to that intersection or there was preceding bad behavior, meaning was there other speeding or riding unsafely even prior to getting to that intersection. That is very helpful especially when we’re doing the analysis to try to determine whether we had gross negligence or not.”

I thrust my finger into the radio dial, and all became silent but for the sound of the wind rushing by. As I drove up 280, it became undeniably clear to me that the DA of San Francisco, who hadn’t even been presented the case by the SFPD, said he was contemplating gross negligence—a felony!—rather than the misdemeanor charge for simple negligence given to Randy Ang, who had admitted to running a stale red light.

Even more alarming, the DA seemed fixated on charging me before he had seen any of the facts.The coroner hadn’t yet prepared a report to determine cause of death. Any reasonable person, especially this early in the ongoing investigation, would argue that fault was still in question—because of all the conflicting accounts: Had my light been red or yellow, and had the pedestrians walked on the WALK or the DON’T WALK symbol? But Gascón wasn’t deliberating between charging me and not charging me at all. He had already definitely decided to charge me. Now he was trying to decide how much to punish me. And he wanted a felony.

My head was spinning. I tried to focus on the road, but I couldn’t keep my thoughts from boiling over.

Gascón seemed to take for granted that what happened in the intersection was entirely the result of my “bad behavior.” That, in and of itself, was a problematic and scary statement, but, stepping back for a moment, why was he on the radio, telling KCBS about an ongoing police investigation that hadn’t been finished yet?

Also, where did this “riding unsafely even prior to getting to that intersection” stuff come from? Did he hear that from Mr. “Several Red Lights and Stop Signs?”

Still not able to comprehend what I had heard, I called Ted.

“Something crazy just happened,” I said, sounding like I was on the verge of a panic attack. “I think I just heard the DA tell KCBS that he’s trying to decide between simple and gross negligence and that he’s leaning toward a felony charge. The concept of not charging me looks like it’s off the table.”

“Wait, are you sure that’s what you heard? That he wants to charge you with a felony?”

“Yeah, he said something like ‘it’s beginning to appear that way.’”

“But his office told me that they haven’t seen the case yet. And that nobody has decided that they’re even pressing charges. This is very strange. Can I hear the newscast?”

“I recorded it on my phone. I’ll send it right now. Call me back after you’ve listened to it—I could be mistaken.”

I pulled over on Dolores Street and sent him the recording. A few minutes later, Ted called me back.

“Chris, he definitely said he’s leaning toward a felony. That’s a big problem, especially this early in the process. Another problem is that he went to the media first. We haven’t heard a peep from his office, and now his tongue is wagging about felony charges on the radio? That’s kind of unbelievable. It means we can’t fight a fair fight. It’s shameful, really. I’ll put a call in to his office right now and find out what’s going on.”

The next day, Sharon Woo, an ADA reporting to George Gascón, called Ted back and explained to him that Gascón was “misquoted” and that the SFPD hadn’t completed the case and presented it to the DA’s office yet—so no, of course they weren’t taking a formal position on felony vs. misdemeanor because they still didn’t have the police report, and yes, of course the option of “no charges at all” was still on the table.

But that “misquoting” didn’t feel like an accident.

Did the DA really already jump to the felony conclusion and announce it to the world before the coroner released a cause of death and before the police finished the report and presented it to his office?

There was, however, a silver lining: The radio broadcast mentioned that the police and/or DA might be examining video taken by a surveillance camera belonging to a business at the site of the accident.

A video is precisely what I need right now—something that will clear up all the ambiguity and show, once and for all, that my light was yellow and that the pedestrians’ signal said DON’T WALK.

I hung my hopes on this video. Eyewitnesses can be unreliable, but it’s impossible to argue against a videographic record—or is it?

CHAPTER TWENTY

April 11, 2012 —13 days since the accident

Whatever hope I felt quickly disappeared the moment this San Francisco Chronicle headline popped up on my phone: Video of fatal S.F. crash may contradict bicyclist.

“‘The biker is going fast and looks like he is hunched down. He hits the victim dead-on. There is never a moment where he looks like he is trying to slow down,’ said the [law enforcement] source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because police are still investigating the March 29 crash.”

No attempt to slow down? That’s not what I remember at all!

I read on in bewilderment. I vividly remembered a crowded crosswalk, at least a half-dozen people, maybe more. Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross wrote: “According to our source, however, the video shows only three or four people in the crosswalk when the collision occurred. ‘It’s not like there is a sea of people crossing,’ the source said.”

The crosswalk wasn’t crowded? Like hell it wasn’t!

And then it got worse: “One thing the video does not show was whether the light was red or yellow when Bucchere entered the intersection. The light was out of the camera’s view.”

Out of the camera’s view? You’ve got to be kidding me!

I tried to pull myself back into a more comprehensible reality. Was it even conceivable that I could have been so utterly wrong about the accident? I had blacked out for at least fifteen minutes; perhaps my memory couldn’t be trusted.

No, that’s impossible. I had a vivid picture of the entire ride, right up until the moment that my head hit the pavement—or so I thought. I hadn’t the faintest idea where these gossip columnists and their “law enforcement sources” were getting these assertions, but they were making me look like a first-class asshole—as if I hadn’t already achieved that status with my widely reported red-light-running, speeding, brakeless-fixie-riding, racing-on-Strava killing spree.

I struggled to find something I could use in this ungodly mess. On a second reading, something subtle caught my eye: “The video shows Sutchi Hui of San Bruno and his wife stepping into the intersection at Castro and Market streets just as Chris Bucchere rides in from the north side, said a law enforcement source who has viewed the footage.” I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down. This was interesting: Even if the video didn’t show any traffic signals, which seemed both unlikely and unlucky, it did show that the Huis and I entered the intersection at the same time, according to the source who had watched it—which, I recalled, corroborated Captain Casciato’s statements from the day after the accident.

So let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the previous statement was true: The Huis and I entered the intersection at the same time. Remember that there’s a three and a half second “all red” phase. Because of this all red phase, either the Huis waited for the WALK symbol and I ran the red light by three and a half seconds, or I entered on a late yellow and the Huis began crossing three and a half seconds before the WALK indicator turned on. Only one of those assertions could be true.

Yet without a traffic light or pedestrian signal in the video, we would never know what really happened.

However, I did know one thing: I needed to get my hands on that footage so I could take a look for myself.


>> Continue to PART III: Conceiving the Inconceivable


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash PART I: The Accident

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 I: The Accident

CHAPTER ONE

29 March 2012, 8:20am—18 minutes since the accident

Nothingness. I’d never experienced anything like the nothingness.

I had once read that near-death experiences involved being surrounded by darkness. Then, from amidst the darkness, a tunnel was supposed to lead to a beckoning white light. But this was different. No white light, no tunnel, no darkness even. No way to tell the darkness from the light. I simply did not exist.

Then, all of a sudden, I did. I could sense myself again. I could feel—and my first feeling was panic. I was choking! I could barely breathe.

At once, a pinprick of light appeared. My eyes began to focus, and my vision crept out in ripples until I could see my hands prying at a cervical collar.

“Get this thing off of me!” I shouted, my voice sounding raspy and hollow as I gasped for air.

“We can’t do that, sir. It’s for your own good.”

A male voice spoke to me, calmly, reassuringly. I had enough peripheral vision by now to see that I was being loaded into an ambulance.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked. “Whose blood is that?”

“It’s from an old man you hit,” said the reassuring voice.

Oh my god! Is he okay?”

“We don’t know, sir. Let’s focus on you for a minute,” said another reassuring voice.

“What’s that they’re pouring on the blood on the street?”

“Hydrogen peroxide. Look here: I’m going to ask you some questions. What’s your name?”

I pondered the question for a long time, then finally told him. I struggled with other easy questions that anyone should have been able to answer. I can’t remember the rest of the ambulance ride—and certainly not for lack of trying. It’s as if it never happened.


Bright lights everywhere. People shuffling around, talking. What am I doing in the hospital? I didn’t feel any pain, other than the choking sensation from the neck brace.

I raised my hands so I could see them again, feeling thankful that they seemed to function properly. And the gloves—long-fingered, black PEARL iZUMi gloves. Why was I wearing my bike gloves? Fuck! It finally dawned upon me: I had been in a bike accident. A road bike accident. The blood. The pedestrians. Oh, fuck!

I felt compelled to take inventory of the damage. All my limbs were intact. I could move my hands and feet. My left side felt numb—like when a hand or foot “falls asleep,” but extending from my calf to my shoulder. I struggled to focus on my injuries. I could hardly breathe with the neck brace on me. Also, they were trying to put an IV in my arm while they continued to stump me with simple questions. I struggled to pay attention to my surroundings.

In the spaces between my fragmented perception, I began the slow process of piecing together the circumstances that had landed me in the ER.


Some time later—no telling how much—I found myself in a hospital gown sitting on a bed. In a hospital room I didn’t remember entering, in a hospital I didn’t remember being admitted to. First an ambulance, then the room—in a matter of seconds. What the hell is happening to me? Am I time-traveling?

Nearly everything in the room gleamed white, chrome, or hospital blue. There was a poster on the wall of a cartoon marching band crossing a four-way intersection.

My wife, Carroll, was sitting in a corner, looking stiff and pale. I had no memory of her entering the room, but I was happy she had.

All of a sudden, an unfamiliar voice startled me. Though unidentifiable at first, the echo of it inside my head made me realize I was hearing the sound of my own speech. I was talking—about the accident.

“The last thing I remember is seeing a crowd of people crossing the street in front of me,” I told her. “People were closing in from both sides, but there was a gap—a gap that was disappearing rapidly. I remember braking like crazy and then trying to crash my bike on my left side. The next thing I remember is the feeling of choking from the neck brace and being loaded into an ambulance.”

The moments before the crash were clear; the moments after were like a patchwork quilt missing most of its patches.

Carroll seemed to be in shock. I tried to comfort her with some lighter topics, like our six-year-old daughter. As I struggled to make conversation, I was distracted by my swirling thoughts, this time of my friend and cycling buddy Tobias. He and I had been riding together moments before the crash. He must have seen something. I made a mental note to call him, though it would be a small miracle if I remembered with my semi-functional brain. Oh, and where is my bike? Before long, we heard a knock on the door.

In walked a tallish woman, stylishly dressed in all black: black pants, black top, black leather bomber, black boots. Two splashes of color, both gold, shone from the badge affixed to her belt and the tiny crucifix that hung from a thin chain around her neck.

“Hi, my name is Lori Cadigan and I’m an Inspector with the Hit-and-Run Detail. We know it wasn’t a hit-and-run; that’s just what they call our unit.”

I don’t know if it was her street clothes, her disarming words, or her warm, motherly mannerisms, but somehow Inspector Cadigan immediately put me at ease. I told her everything I could remember: how I went through a yellow light and that I had no idea what those pedestrians were doing there. I told her they closed the gap on me and that I just wasn’t given a chance to leave the intersection in one piece. I pointed to the silly framed poster on the wall with the marching band crossing the street, and told her that it reminded me of Market and Castro earlier that morning. She snapped a photo of that poster, along with photos of my injuries, my shredded bike clothes, and my smashed helmet.

After I gave my statement and Lori took her notes, she stood up and said, with a deeply sympathetic affect, “I understand what happened, Chris. Pedestrians cross way too early all the time in this city. Plus, I’m sure he’ll be fine. This is no big deal.”

CHAPTER TWO

29 March 2012, 2:00pm—6 hours since the accident

I found myself at home, reclining in a chair, without a clue as to how I had gotten there. On the table next to me was an open bottle of Percocet, a glass of water, and an ice pack that I was supposed to move from the table to my head and back every fifteen minutes, a task made unusually difficult because time was playing tricks on me. How did I get here? Carroll had to remind me that she had driven us home in her car.

My beat-up body—and the bells tolling in my head—left me in no shape to go to work; plus, the day was more than half over already. That gave me the afternoon off—but with a fist wedged in my left temple, an eggplant-colored bruise on my hip, at least forty-eight square inches of road rash, one humdinger of a headache, and some fierce painkillers. In other words: ideal conditions for binge-watching TV in the fetal position.

In spite of this, I fumbled around for my laptop and started composing an email to my family, a few friends, and my cycling teammates to let them know there had been a horrific accident but that, for the most part, I was okay.

This turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. My thoughts arrived in short blasts interrupted by surges in the sting of my road rash. The few ideas I could produce swirled around in my head like water at the end of a toilet flush.

I had a flashback of the pedestrians closing the gap on me. At once, the gravity of this situation began to seep through the swelling and narcotics. I’m a mess right now, but thanks to my helmet, I’ll be fine. But what about the pedestrian? Is he going to make it?

Then, in the very next instant, I’d jump into a different thought vortex.

I told Lori what had happened; she said it was no big deal. Pedestrians cross early all the time, she said. I wondered how long they’d need to keep my bike.

This wasn’t complicated, but it was making my head spin. And throb—even more so than it did already.

It’s a small miracle that other people weren’t injured, too, I thought. It’s a small miracle that I wasn’t more seriously injured. Jesus. Both the man I hit and I could have died. Easily. Other pedestrians could have died, too. The only thing that saved me—in all likelihood—was wearing my helmet. Jesus!

The seriousness of the situation was beginning to hit me—how close a call it had really been. A second or two later and my daughter wouldn’t have a father; my wife wouldn’t have a husband; my parents would lose their son. My brother… My friends… The emotions came in waves—fear, nausea, relief—with each new realization.

A vision of Carroll getting that terrible phone call coursed through my poorly functioning brain: “Mrs. Bucchere, your husband has been killed in a bicycle accident.” Although I had been the one to conjure it up, I was unable make it stop. My head throbbed. I reached up and touched the lump on my forehead. I’m really fucking glad I was wearing my helmet.

I’m not a big crying person, but I started sobbing. Damn, what the hell do they put in Percocet?

My thoughts circled around and around, up and down, as I typed away, my brain playing table tennis with my emotions.

Suddenly, I remembered that I needed to call Lori to check on the pedestrian in the hospital. I hope he’s not hurt too badly. Wait, I just did that. He’s probably going to be fine, Inspector Cadigan had told me.

I squinted, as if trying to make my brain function better, and I read through the words. My thoughts continued to swirl. I felt extra-witty, almost giddy. After all, everyone lived!

Then I rapidly transitioned to a frightened little boy. I almost died. My life and the lives of everyone around me had almost changed irrevocably in an instant. These terrifying images were too much to handle, especially in my battered and drugged condition. So I did what I normally do in such situations: I tried to be funny. Humor seemed like a good shield to keep my true emotions from showing.

On Mar 29, 2012, at 2:16 PM, Chris Bucchere wrote:

Dear Missionistas / Raiders of the Morning, Famiglia and Amigos [translation: Wife, Mom, Dad, Brother, a couple riding buddies and my Mission Cycling teammates],

I wrecked on the way home today from the bi-weekly Headlands Raid today. Short story: I’m fine. The pedestrian I clobbered? Not so much. Long(er) story:

Around 8am I was descending Divisidero Street [misspelled, and actually Castro Street] southbound and about to cross Market Street. The light turned yellow as I was approaching the intersection, but I was already way too committed to stop. The light turned red as I was cruising through the middle of the intersection and then, almost instantly, the southern crosswalk on Market and Castro filled up with people coming from both directions. The intersection very long and the width of Castro Street at that point is very short, so, in a nutshell, blammo.

The quote/unquote “scene of the crime” was that intersection right by the landmark Castro Theatre—it leads from a really busy MUNI station to that little plaza where The Naked Guy always hangs out. It was commuter hour and it was crowded as all getup. I couldn’t see a line through the crowd and I couldn’t stop, so I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find.

I don’t remember the next five minutes but when I came to, I was in a neck brace being loaded into an ambulance. I remember seeing a RIVER of blood on the asphalt, but it wasn’t mine. Apparently I hit a 71-year old male pedestrian and he ended up in the ICU with pretty serious head injuries. I really hope he ends up OK.

They asked me a bunch of stupid easy questions that I couldn’t answer, so they kept me for a few hours for observation, gave me a tetanus shot and sent me on my way.

Anyway, other than a stiff neck, a sore jaw/TMJ, a few bruises, and some raspberries, I’m totally fine. I got discharged from the hospital during the lunch hour. The guy I hit was not as fortunate. I really hope he makes it.

The cops took my bike. Hopefully they’ll give it back.

In closing, I want to dedicate this story to my late helmet. She died in heroic fashion today as my head slammed into the tarmac. Like the Secret Service would do for a president, she took some serious pavement today, cracking through-and-through in five places and getting completely mauled by the ragged asphalt. May she die knowing that because she committed the ultimate sacrifice, her rider can live on and ride on. Can I get an amen?

Amen.

The moral of this little story is: WYFH

Hoping you’ll all keep the rubber side down,

Chris

My head was hurting too much to continue, so I pressed the button with the paper airplane on it. I heard that satisfying “swoosh” sound, and closed the lid on my laptop.

CHAPTER THREE

29 March 2012, 4:00pm—8 hours since the accident

Before sending that email to my friends, family, and teammates, I had contemplated lying down and taking a nap. Now I really needed one.

Instead, I called Inspector Cadigan again to ask about the condition of the other person involved in the accident. I didn’t know his name; I only knew he was male and elderly. The more I regained my mental faculties, the more deeply I became concerned about the pedestrian, and the more I hoped desperately that he would be okay. Inspector Cadigan said that he was in stable condition, but that he hadn’t left the ICU. She didn’t seem too concerned.

Then, out of nowhere, I asked her when I could get my bike back. Soon, she told me. I immediately regretted asking.

Trying—and struggling—to stay focused, I flipped open my computer again, only to discover that earlier that day, over at the San Francisco Chronicle, Ellen Huet, a Stanford-educated journalist about ten years too young to have been my classmate, had done some writing of her own.

I tried to read it, but my mind wandered back to the scene of the accident. The gap. The pedestrians closing in on me. The blood. Scattered, broken memories of the hospital.

After struggling to regain my concentration, I read Ellen’s article.

Pedestrian, cyclist injured in crash in Castro
Published 1:12 p.m., Thursday, March 29, 2012
San Francisco—A man walking in a Market Street crosswalk was struck and injured by a bicyclist and taken to the hospital this morning, authorities said. The cyclist was also injured and taken to San Francisco General Hospital following the accident, which occurred just after 8 a.m. at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, said S.F. Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.

The pedestrian’s injuries were originally believed to be life threatening, but he is expected to survive, police said.

According to police, the male cyclist was traveling south on Castro and crossing Market when he struck the man, who was walking eastbound in the crosswalk. The bicyclist may have run a red light, according to witnesses, police said.

One witness said both people were unconscious after the collision, Talmadge said, but she couldn’t confirm that detail.

Two paramedic units and a fire engine responded to the scene. Police estimated the pedestrian’s age as at least 65. No age or extent of injuries was given for the bicyclist.

I read the article over and over. After a while, my deeply-drugged, post-concussive mind focused enough to draw a few conclusions.

“Carroll, we have a problem!” I shouted through the wall separating the guest room from the kitchen. “There’s an article in the Chronicle that makes it sound like this whole thing was my fault.”

“What? Why? How?”

“You know how everyone in this city feels about cyclists, right? They’re using some really slippery language to play into negative stereotypes. It says the guy I hit was walking in a crosswalk, which implies he had the right of way, but it doesn’t say what color his WALK indicator was. However, it does say—although third-hand—that I may have run a red light.”

Carroll leaned over my shoulder and read the article.

“It also says ‘struck and injured by a bicyclist’ instead of ‘by a bike,’” I said. “If he were hit by anything other than a bike, it would have said, ‘hit by a car’ or ‘a bus’ or ‘a train,’ not by a ‘driver.’

“Unless the driver was drunk,” I added. “Then it would have said ‘hit by a drunk driver.’”

This article seemed crafted to malign the unnamed cyclist as much as possible—without becoming verifiably false.

For proof that the Chronicle’s strategy was working, I needn’t do anything but scroll down. Against my better judgment, I read the comments—all 500+ of them. By the time I had reached the last page, I clicked back to the beginning and saw hundreds more pour in. Here is what San Francisco had to say in response to Ellen’s article:

“Most bicyclists represent the pinnacle of San Francisco narcissism and self-righteousness. Out of the thousands of bicyclists I have seen on the streets here, only one has stopped at a stop sign. It was a memorable sight!” —musclesister

“Bicycle riders VERY rarely obey the traffic laws. I avoid Market Street and the downtown area, but normal everyday cyclists ignore stop signs, lights, right of ways, etc. They think they own the road and always should have the right of way. They cut you off and then flip you off if you disagree with them. Some are curious, but not many!!!! Furthermore, I have NEVER seen a cyclists pulled over getting a ticket for anything! Do they ever get tickets for flying through stop signs, or red lights?” —gldretlvr

“Every single rush hour biker at Valencia and Market ignores the ‘No Right on Red’ sign. Every single one, as many as fifteen at a stop, for a solid forty minutes or whatever. So that’s probably several hundred scofflaws during that hour. They then will weave in between the cars stopped in the right lane during traffic, and many will pass cars ahead of them signaling/waiting to turn right onto Gough. ON THE RIGHT. They pass right-signaling motorists, ahead of them, on the right! I’m there four/five times week dropping my girflfriend off at school. They all do it. Idiocy. The freakin Bike Coalition website has ‘Do not pass a right-signaling motorist ahead of you on the right’ (or similar) on one of their ‘how to’ pages. But they’ll all do it, whip into the pedestrian crosswalk lane, cut you off, and then say ‘F you’ if you honk.” —Kennydojo

Perhaps one out of every three dozen comments would encourage people to remain patient: We don’t have all the facts. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. Right of way depends upon the color of the lights.

The moment these—and other similar ideas—were espoused, they got shouted down by trolls.

CHAPTER FOUR

29 March 2012, 7:00pm—11 hours since the accident

“Come eat with us,” Carroll said, her tone subtly—but noticeably—different from the first two times she had asked. Dinner was on the table, and she and our daughter, Ashley, were sitting down to eat. By waiting for me, they were doing the polite thing, and I already felt guilty.

“I can’t, honey. Everyone’s saying this is all my fault.” I sounded pathetic.

“But you said your light was yellow.”

“Witnesses say it was red—and I’m sure it was red at the time of the accident. But it was yellow when I first entered the intersection.” My mind, still not quite right, wandered mid-conversation. What were those pedestrians doing there?

“The pedestrians had to have started moving before the WALK symbol came on in order for the crosswalk to fill up as quickly as it did,” I continued. “But the article fails to mention that. And I can’t prove it! It just says they ‘were in the crosswalk,’ never once mentioning whether they were there lawfully or not. And besides, it’s my word against everyone else’s. All the commenters jumped on this ‘red light’ bandwagon. Now they want my head on a seat post.”

“Really? People are saying that?” Carroll asked in disbelief.

“That’s one of the tamer ones! Why are people so mean on the internet?”

Carroll shrugged. That was an impossible question.

I kept reading the comments, unsure of why I felt compelled to do so, yet unable to stop. My eyes moved from one to another and another until they all started to sound the same. Suddenly, a vision of Inspector Cadigan popped into my head. “Pedestrians cross early all the time in this city,” she said. “This is no big deal.”

With these thoughts lingering in my still-underperforming brain, I was able to make it through dinner, trying to find topics to distract me, Carroll, and Ashley from the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We didn’t want to frighten our girl.

Carroll offered to handle the bedtime routine so I could watch, in near real time, as hundreds upon hundreds of people cursed and scorned me—this nameless, faceless bicycle villain. Commenters employed creative tactics to avoid the website’s abuse protocols in order to get their jabs in, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Even though they didn’t know who they were attacking, I did. Watching these people defile me—in what felt like a digital lynching—was absolutely maddening. But as awful as it was, and as awful as it was to know I couldn’t fight back, at least I was anonymous. They hated this cyclist, but they didn’t know who he was.

Then something terrifying popped up in the comments. I thought my eyes—still bleary from shock, the concussion, and the drugs—were playing tricks on me. I refreshed the page but there I saw, unmistakable, even in my fog-ridden condition—my email address and my phone number. Right there in the comments. What the fucking fuck?

“Carroll, you need to come up here, quickly.” She came running up from the downstairs bedroom.

“Somehow people are posting my name, email, and phone number on the Chronicle website. Commenters are connecting me to Ellen’s article, even though she didn’t mention my name. How is this happening?”

A few Google searches later, I found my answer. One of my Mission Cycling “teammates”—someone with whom I had never ridden—had copied the text of my doped-up email into a new thread on the online message board for SF2G, a group of cyclists who congregate to commute from San Francisco to the Peninsula and South Bay. From there, my email ended up on MTBR, a forum for Bay Area mountain bikers. Like it or not, my email had now been posted—without my consent—on the open internet in a very public way. As people dissected it—stripping away its context—that oh-so-clever note of mine started to take on a life of its own.

Dealing with Mission Cycling’s leak would have to wait because I needed to focus on a bigger problem: How was I was going to get my email address and phone number off of sfgate.com, where a mob had been fomenting all afternoon and into the evening? I quickly scanned the Terms & Conditions of the Chronicle’s site and found that they prohibited the posting of someone’s personal information online without his or her consent. That was all I needed. Every time my contact info turned up in a comment, I filed an abuse report, asking for the comment to be removed.

At first, I was able to keep up with the postings. But before long, this effort of mine turned into a seemingly-endless game of Whack-a-Mole. I needed help. I called a buddy on the east coast, who, despite the late hour, lent me a hand in reporting the abuse of my personal information. Even with two people hammering on the “Report Abuse” button full time for more than an hour, we were falling behind. I knew we couldn’t keep this up for much longer. Then I had an idea. It wasn’t a very good one, but it seemed worth a shot.

I pointed my browser to the members-only Stanford Alumni Directory and typed in “Ellen Huet,” the Chronicle reporter who—by including the red light comment in her article—had started this media uproar. The alumni directory listed The Mercury News in San Jose as her employer. I dialed the number. After a few rings, a voicemail greeting played, confirming that it was in fact Ellen and that she could be reached on her mobile phone if it was urgent. I took down her number and called it. She didn’t pick up; I left a voicemail, and she called me back about ten minutes later.

“Hi, Ellen,” I said, measuring every word.

Hi, Chris. I’m sorry I couldn’t take your call—I was in the shower.”

“No problem,” I said hastily. “Listen, I’m sorry that I have to do this, but everything we talk about tonight has to stay completely off the record.” This was perhaps the first smart decision I had made since the accident, twelve hours prior.

“Okay…” Ellen said tentatively. That wasn’t good enough for me.

“Can I have your word?”

“You have my word.”

“Thank you. So here’s the deal. I’m the cyclist from this morning’s accident. I sent an email account of what happened to my family, a few close friends, and my teammates. Somehow, it’s now all over the internet. People have connected me to your article, and they’re posting my personal contact information and bits of the email in the comments section, mixed in with some of the most profoundly hateful personal attacks I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m sorry about that, Chris. I’ve asked the web team to replace those anonymous forums with something that uses real people’s identities, perhaps even their Facebook accounts. Because right now they’re brutal.”

“Yeah, using Facebook or something would be great, but about what’s happening right now with my contact information—what can we do to get rid of it?” I’m sure she could sense the wide-eyed terror in my voice, shaky from the physical trauma and nearly short of breath from the emotional, painkiller-laced roller coaster ride.

“Are you using the abuse reporting form on the website?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s a good start.”

“But people are posting my contact information faster than I can request that it be taken down. I’m having trouble keeping up.”

“I’ll call the web ops team and see if there’s anything they can do. It’s late, but I’ll do the best I can.”

“Thank you, Ellen.”

“Listen, while I’ve got you on the line, do you want to make a statement?”

“Yes, I want to. But I can’t. We have to stay off the record. But I’ll tell you what. There’s already a lot I want—I need—to say about this. So I promise, the moment I can talk, you’ll be the first person I call.”

“Thank you, Chris.”

“All right then. We’ll be in touch.”

As I put the phone down, I wondered whether I had accidentally stepped on a hornet’s nest or intentionally kicked one in—and, moreover, whether or not that distinction mattered even in the slightest.

CHAPTER FIVE

30 March 2012—1 day since the accident

I awoke in such overwhelming pain that the very thought of getting out of bed made me ask myself how it was, exactly, that I had managed to get myself into bed the evening before. I tried to gather my wits and take inventory of my injuries. On the surface, my left side stung with a red-hot, burning sensation: like a bee sting on top of a sunburn. My left thigh pulsed with dull thuds, reminding me of the deep-purple, football-size bruise on my hip. And in my head, the bells still tolled, but not as loudly as they had yesterday. I knew I was lucky to be alive—and lucky I wasn’t more seriously injured.

Putting aside the splitting headache, perhaps the most vexing problem was that my teeth still didn’t seem to line up quite right when I bit down. I wondered if my jaw issue might require some follow-up care. I also wondered if I should call Inspector Cadigan again to check on the condition of the pedestrian. But it was too early to call. I made a note to try her later.

I dreaded the reality of what checking the internet would bring, but the morbidly curious part of me dragged my body out of bed and up a flight of stairs, where I plunked myself down in front of my laptop. A few dozen more comments had streamed in on the Chronicle’s website through the night, but they had slowed to a trickle by the morning. Thank god, I thought, they found some bigger fish to fry. I scanned the site for traces of my mobile number or email address, but I didn’t find any.

I felt—albeit tenuously—in control. Perhaps, with some help from Ellen, I had dodged a bullet, but I had a funny feeling this wouldn’t be the last time I would see my private artifacts strewn across the pages of the media, both social and mainstream.

For now, however, all I could find were more commenters making more negative over-generalizations—cyclists NEVER stop at red lights or stop signs—and more personal accounts of how cyclists are to blame for ignoring the rules of the road, riding on sidewalks, running down innocent pedestrians. Those arrogant bastards!

All this was peppered with the equally repetitive counter-arguments: cars hurt a lot more people than bikes do, and besides, nobody follows the rules of the road anyway, etc. On both sides, everyone seemed either unreasonably entitled to something or bemoaning the unreasonable entitlement of others to something else. And, in keeping with “Godwin’s law,” people eventually started comparing me to Hitler and the Nazis.

For some of these commenters—who hid behind a cloak of pseudonymity—it was difficult to discern the exact target of their animosity, but most of it appeared fundamentally related to how some sub-group—in this case, cyclists—were bringing ruin upon our fair city. If we could only save our city by banning bicycles—or at least licensing them—or enforcing the rules of the road—then we could have the wonderful San Francisco to which we’re all entitled.

This “full-fledged bike-car hatefest” (as commenter queerflame put it) revealed a palpable bias against cyclists. Nearly every adult drives, but relatively few ride bikes. This makes it easy for non-cyclists to generalize the lawless behavior of a small contingent of outlaw cyclists and apply it to all cyclists. Never do people consider blaming all drivers when a pedestrian gets killed by a car.

I desperately needed to think about something else. I contemplated going to work. More often than not I cycle-commuted there, but I was in no shape to ride. I loosened up a bit in the shower and, after some breakfast and aspirin, I found myself driving to my contract software development job in San Bruno.

During my commute, I finally remembered to call Tobias. He picked up.

“How are you holding up?” asked my good friend of more than a decade.

“Well, could be worse, I guess,” I said. “My biggest concern right now is what those pedestrians were doing in the street. You slowed to turn onto 17th Street and would have had a perfect vantage point. I thought I made the light at Market Street. Did the pedestrians jump the WALK indicator?”

“Look, Chris, I didn’t see anything, just heard a commotion as I approached the light, so instead of turning right, I stopped, waited for the light to turn green, and came over to help. Really though, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Why not?”

“Because if I need to testify or I get deposed, I don’t want people to know that we talked; otherwise they might think we’re colluding.”

“Colluding? I just—” I had more to say, but Tobias cut me off.

“Look, Chris, I’ve retained counsel. You probably should too. And we need to not talk about this. Trust me; it’s the right thing to do.”

The conversation hadn’t gone at all as I had expected. I’d already lost my dignity from the shellacking I was getting on the internet; was I about to lose a good friend now, too?

I tried to put these thoughts aside as I walked from my car into the office. My coworkers’ reactions were measured. Faced with all the drama that goes with running a global e-commerce operation that employed more than 800 web servers in rotation at any given time, these guys and gals hardly ever got fired up about anything. I found that admirable and tried my best to follow their lead.

One of my co-workers, a slim, long-haired, goateed software developer, stood out from the pack. He was of Indian descent, but because he had been born in Nairobi, he identified more with being Kenyan than being Indian—if not with being human itself. As a meeting broke up for lunch, I pulled him aside to say hello.

“Man, are you okay?” asked a concerned Prince, his eyes avoiding the hideous lump and gash on my forehead.

“Hanging in there. All in all, I wasn’t hurt too badly; was out of the ER in just a few hours.”

“You know, I live just a couple blocks from SF General, so if you ever need anything.”

“I know, but if I never see the inside of that place again, it’ll be too soon.”

“Don’t tempt the universe,” warned Prince. We laughed.

I had only known Prince for about nine months, but he’s one of those people with whom nearly every topic of conversation ends up transitioning into comedy. But this time I needed his help, not his humor.

I wanted to bounce some ideas off Prince as I pieced together a preliminary understanding of what really happened at Market and Castro the day before. Armed with a fierce-smelling whiteboard pen, I drew a quick sketch of the intersection, narrating along the way.

“I entered the intersection from the north, coming down the hill on Castro. It’s not too steep, but I had picked up some speed—low twenties is my guess, perhaps more—but I don’t really know for sure. Anyway, I’m headed south down the hill when I first saw the yellow, and my lizard brain took over and decided to go for it.”

“Why didn’t you try to stop?” It was a good question, coming from a place of love and concern.

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision—my gut thought it was safer to run a stale yellow than to try an emergency stop at the bottom of the hill, which could have sent me skidding into the intersection, where I would likely then be run over by a car—or two or three. But who knows if I really put that much thought into it. It was instinctual.”

“I’ve been there, man—we all have. There’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach—relief when you make the yellow—and guilt and fear when you don’t. So, did you make it?”

“I did.”

“Great. Well then, you have nothing to worry about.” Prince smiled wryly, indicating either irrational confidence or wicked sarcasm—or perhaps a bit of both.

“Have you come down the Castro hill before where it crosses Market?” I asked.

“I have.”

“Then you probably know that there are two pairs of traffic signals—one pair at the north end and one at the south end. The northern signals were out of view when I saw the southern lights turn red, meaning I was already in the intersection.”

“Good. So, then, how the hell did you manage to hit someone?”

I hadn’t quite sorted this part out yet. And I needed Prince’s help. I continued scrawling with the whiteboard pen.

“The intersection is pretty wide—I would guess somewhere between a hundred and two hundred feet—it crosses four lanes of traffic and then narrows like a funnel as it continues down Castro Street, south of Market Street. The instant I looked down from the changing light, people—crossing from both sides—started to close in on me. I tried everything—braking, yelling, swerving, even ditching the bike—but I didn’t stand a chance. Here’s what I can’t figure out: Were those pedestrians supposed to be there? Did they have the right of way somehow?”

“No and no,” said Prince. He seemed overly confident, especially given how little information I had shared with him.

“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know whether they had the WALK symbol!”

“It doesn’t matter! When you get a green light, what does that mean?” asked Prince.

“Go?” I answered tentatively. I had a feeling I was about to be taken to school.

“No!” Prince said loudly, but not loudly enough to turn any heads.

“Green means proceed with caution. It means, if the intersection isn’t clear, you have to wait until it clears before you go charging into it. And the same rule applies to walk symbols. WALK doesn’t mean ‘go’—it means look both ways, then if it’s clear, ‘proceed with caution.’”

We’d only known one another for a short time, but I’d loved Prince since the moment I came into the office one day and found him loitering in my pod. We worked ten feet from one another, so we always made time for chit-chat and tried to have lunch together every day, if possible.

Certain that he was just looking out for his pal, I didn’t entirely believe his interpretation of the law. We stepped over to my cube and pulled up the site for the California Vehicle Code. Sure enough, Prince was spot on. CVC Section 21456(a) states that “a pedestrian facing the signal may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal, but shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown.”

“So it doesn’t matter whether their signal said WALK or DON’T WALK, Chris. They were legally required to wait for you—and all other vehicles—to clear the intersection before they started crossing,” Prince said, again, with a confidence I wish I shared.

This revelation at least gave me the peace of mind to get back to work. I dove into one of my projects. Like Inspector Cadigan said, this was going to be no big deal. The pedestrians crossed too early. They either didn’t have the WALK sign at all or, if they did, they were still legally required to wait for me to clear the intersection before they started crossing. But they didn’t wait. And by “they” I meant at least a half dozen people, if not more, though I couldn’t be sure.

As the afternoon waned, I couldn’t hold out any longer; I needed to see what the media was saying about the accident. Expecting the best—but preparing for the worst—I searched “pedestrian cyclist market castro.” This time—it was good news. Sergeant Daryl Fong said that doctors expected the pedestrian to recover.

What a relief. The elderly man was going to live!

But then, just as suddenly as it had come, the lightness in my chest quickly gave way to a new heavy, sinking feeling: He’s still elderly and possibly not in great health. He’s still in the hospital. We’re not out of the woods yet. But then again, the papers were reporting that doctors were saying that he was expected to survive.

Later that evening, San Francisco Police Department Captain Rick Casciato told KCBS that “the light had just changed as a 73-year-old man stepped into the crosswalk and the bicyclist entered the intersection traveling downhill fast on the southbound side of Castro Street.” Although I found his assessment of my speed a little spurious, I noticed that by saying that the light had “just changed” as the pedestrian and I entered, he implied that we entered at the same time. This gave me a new frame of reference for understanding the accident. If we both entered at the same time, who had the right of way? Prince had already decided that I did. As much as I wanted to believe him, a definitive answer to that question remained outside my reach. My head, for a multitude of reasons, continued to throb.

Meanwhile, something remarkable happened online. SF Streetsblog started a counter-backlash of sorts by calling out the disparity between the relatively-small amount of media coverage given to all the pedestrians killed by cars versus the whopping amount of coverage about my accident. I took this as a good omen. Dissent in the media meant that the prevailing narrative might get challenged.

So for these reasons—and perhaps because I was still suffering from my head injury—I felt cautiously optimistic. I took comfort in the news that the still-nameless pedestrian was going to survive. And that the cyclist was still just a cyclist, not Chris Bucchere the cyclist.

Inspector Cadigan was right all along. The pedestrian would recover from his injuries and, in the end, this really would be no big deal.

CHAPTER SIX

31 March 2012—2 days since the accident

Saturday: the final day of this incomprehensible week. I was still in a lot of pain, but it was manageable without painkillers. My head also seemed clearer, but I couldn’t shake my nervousness and concern about the condition of the pedestrian; in fact, it seemed to be getting worse.

I couldn’t call Inspector Cadigan because I only had her office number, and I knew she wouldn’t be there over the weekend. I wanted to talk to her again, badly. I wanted to know how the elderly man was doing. Did he get moved out of the ICU? How badly was he injured? How is the family? I wanted her to reassure me again that this was no big deal.

Since that wasn’t going to happen, I drove to the store and bought the nicest-looking orchid I could find, one with a half-dozen beautiful purple and white flowers, along with a card. On the card, I wrote a note expressing my sympathy and wishing the elderly man a speedy recovery, even though I still didn’t know his name. I dropped the card and the orchid off at SF General Hospital, leaving them at the front desk. Although powerlessness and helplessness over this man’s situation overwhelmed me, I went to bed feeling slightly better for having at least done something.

The following evening, I spent some time on a website called IFTTT in an effort to help me stay on top of media coverage about the accident. IFTTT—pronounced so that it rhymes with “drift”—is short for “IF This Then That.” The site offered no content of its own, but it provided automation tools for connecting many of the popular sites and services on the internet. By stringing together a few alerts for mentions of keywords, I was able to get text messages to my phone within fifteen minutes of anything being said, anywhere on the internet, about me or the accident. I set the body of the text message to the URL so I could easily click through and read the stories and comments.

One of these IFTTT alerts soon provided an important clue in a letter to the editor from a man claiming to have witnessed the accident.

Dangerous intersection

I had just read The Chronicle, including the column by C.W. Nevius, “Adopting a corner simple way to keep street safer” (March 29), when I witnessed a morning rush-hour traffic accident at the corner of Castro and Market streets involving a bicyclist and a pedestrian.

As far as I could tell, both parties were anxious to cross the intersection: an adult male cyclist going south downhill through that major, complicated intersection, and an elderly male pedestrian stepping into and crossing the street hoping to catch a northbound 24 Muni bus.

This intersection needs a major rethinking by all responsible parties, and updates to make it safer for all San Franciscans and visitors to use.

John Mehring, San Francisco

Why did the author assume that the pedestrian was headed for the bus? I didn’t remember seeing a bus, but my memory of the accident was far from perfect. If the letter writer’s account about the bus was correct, it meant that using the opposing northbound lane to avoid pedestrians wasn’t an option for me, because it was probably blocked, at least in part, by this bus. It also meant that the pedestrians coming from the opposite side of the street might have been hurrying to catch the 24—or perhaps that people getting off the bus were hurrying to catch the MUNI underground on the west side of the street.

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought how the author was right: “This intersection needs a major rethinking.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

2 April 2012—4 days since the accident

Monday morning. I had substantially less difficulty prying myself out of bed relative to my experience the prior two mornings. Looking in the mirror, I gasped at the enormous blood bruise on my left thigh. Stepping into the shower, I felt the sting of thousands of pinpricks as the warm water coursed over my road rash—as if each droplet was trying to peel off a tiny nascent scab.

I still felt pretty beat up, but I knew I would eventually heal. As the stinging subsided, I turned the water a bit hotter, wincing in pain again from the change in temperature. I wondered how the pedestrian was doing. It was probably too early to call Inspector Cadigan, but I planned to do so when I got to work.

As it turned out, work was busier than usual on that particular morning, and I didn’t get a chance to call before an “Unknown” caller ID popped up on my phone.

“Chris, it’s Lori Cadigan. I have bad news. The pedestrian died today.”

The words “oh my god” came out of my mouth, though I don’t feel like I consciously spoke them. My face turned hot and red, and I didn’t know what to say. The stinging surged through my head and shot down my spine, radiating out to my extremities. I have never felt such a sensation before. It felt like burning from the inside out.

”Lori, that’s impossible! The newspaper said he was getting better! My god, this can’t be right. What happened?”

“I can’t discuss the specific medical issues with you. And we need to hold on to your bike for a while,” Inspector Cadigan said, her voice still soothing and reassuring, but now also stern and a little shaky, too.

“Keep it as long as you need. And please tell me if there is anything else I can do.”

“I will.”

She hung up the phone. I could hear the sadness and concern in her voice. It seemed genuine, as had all my interactions with Inspector Cadigan.

I desperately needed to tell my wife. But I couldn’t do it. Words failed me, completely. He was dead. Because of my actions, a man had died.

The only coherent thought I could assemble about this matter was that it was completely and utterly impossible. The doctors had said he was expected to “make a full recovery.” I had read it in the newspaper; I had seen it online; I had watched it on TV. The hospital spokesperson had said it.

This is not actually happening.

I finally mustered up a shred of courage and called Carroll. We shared the same emotions: devastation, shock, and horror as we thought about the family of the deceased and their loss. What have I done? What can I do?

I left work early, my emotions surging. I called my parents and a few close friends. Everyone was shocked and horrified. They expressed grief for the family, while feeling powerless and helpless. I felt the same.

But during each phone call, the conversation inevitably included one additional sentiment: Before saying or doing anything else, I needed to find myself an attorney.

CHAPTER EIGHT

3 April 2012—5 days since the accident

Still in shock from the prior day’s news, I finally heeded the many warnings I was getting and started calling attorneys. I began my search by calling Lauren, an occasional Mission Cycling rider with whom I had been doing some cycle-commuting. I knew—from an email he himself had sent to the Mission Cycling mailing list—that he had been hit by a car recently while cycling in the city. He had good things to say about his attorney, Jacques Mumford, who, I soon found out, picks up his own phone.

“Hi, Jacques, I got your name from one of the guys I’ve been riding with. I was in the bike accident with a pedestrian that’s all over the news.”

“Oh, yeah, that one. Were you injured in the accident?”

“I was, but not too badly. I was in and out of the ER in about six hours.”

“Good. How about the old Asian guy?”

“At first they thought he would recover, but then out of nowhere he died in the hospital yesterday. Hey, wait a minute, who said he was Asian?”

“Nobody. I’ve been doing this a long time, man—and when a pedestrian gets hit by a car in this city, it’s always some old Asian guy.”

I’d spoken to the police several times and read dozens of news stories and umpteen-thousand comments. No one had said anything except “elderly” and “male.”

“Look, Chris, this sounds terrible. I wish I could help you. But I usually represent cyclists as plaintiffs looking for medical bill payments and other compensation for being injured by vehicles. What you need is a criminal defense attorney.”

“Criminal?”

“Yes. People really despise cyclists in this city, so you’ll likely face criminal charges for this.”

“Criminal charges? What kind of criminal charges?”

“Too soon to say.”

“Well, what do I do?”

“I would call Ted Cassman. He’s the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area. You should act quickly. And don’t talk to anyone about anything.”

“Thanks, I will. And I won’t.”

“Oh, and one more thing. Have you heard of a kid named Randy Ang?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Google him.”

I did, and soon found out that San Francisco, unlike most other cities, had a concerning history of overcharging a cyclist for accidentally—but fatally—injuring a pedestrian.

About a year prior to my accident, District Attorney George Gascón charged cyclist Randy Ang with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for his role in a bike/pedestrian collision with a 69-year-old woman in a crosswalk at Embarcadero and Mission. The news of Ang’s sentencing broke just seventeen days before my now-fatal accident.

The press ate up Ang’s story, causing a torrent of angst-ridden, vulgar, and often violent screeds, as commenters read and remarked about how Randy “got off easy.” His supposedly “light” sentence? 500 hours of community service, three years of probation, and a restitution payment to the victim’s family in the neighborhood of $15,000.

In actuality, Randy Ang received a decidedly heavy sentence, compared to the de facto punishment for the drivers of machines that cause more pedestrian deaths than anything else on wheels: motor vehicles. A study of 434 pedestrian deaths in the Bay Area from 2007-2011 revealed that “sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges.”

They probably didn’t see their names in the newspaper, either.

So Ang actually got a relatively stiff sentence, but one that walked a very fine line between San Francisco’s highly vocal bicycle lobby and the raging anti-cyclist contingent clamoring for Ang to serve jail time—ignoring that all the while, the deceased’s widower called for no incarceration, saying, “Our loss is done.”

I put in a call to Ang’s attorney, Tony Brass, and he told me that the pedestrian, Didi Cherney, was about to finish lawfully crossing Embarcadero Street with a group of several others in a crosswalk with the clear right of way. Ang then ran a late red light—stale to the point of being near the next green cycle—and collided with her. Tony said he immediately admitted to blowing the red and failing to yield the right of way to a lawfully-crossing pedestrian. Then he made a plea deal and received a sentence similar to that of some motorists, which may have been stiffened up a bit because the cyclist was clearly at fault. Perhaps the heavier charges also had something to do with the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to anything involving people who ride bicycles in San Francisco.

Commenters whipped themselves into a frenzy over Randolph Ang and Didi Cherney, but the stories about Ang quickly faded into obscurity as attention turned toward the next controversy. If the Chronicle’s online comment forums were to be believed, however, many in the city were left with the mistaken impression that cyclists always get off easy.

CHAPTER NINE

4 April 2012—6 days since the accident

The two-story offices of Arguedas, Cassman, & Headley conveyed a modest sophistication that included, in the waiting area, a large print of the churning whitewater that succeeds the crash of a great wave. I sat in the lobby and played with my phone, not really knowing what to expect.

After a short while, a slight man strode down the stairs. He wore black jeans, a fitted, dark-gray dress shirt, and minimalist athletic shoes. A few wisps of silver hair remained upon his otherwise bald head to complement his gray goatee and slate-blue eyes.

“Ted Cassman,” the man said, as he stuck out his hand. “I’ve gathered a team in a conference room. Come on upstairs and tell us what happened.”

Ted led me into a large room and introduced Cris Arguedas and several other folks—junior attorneys, contract private-investigator types and the like. I had the floor, so I recited my account of the events of the week prior—the same account I had given to the police—along with printed emails exchanged between Inspector Cadigan and me in the days after the accident as I continued to cooperate fully with their investigation. I took a deep breath, suspecting that those in the room could sense the gravity of the situation.

“So, then there’s this awful email,” I said with chagrin, as I produced the final piece of paper I intended to hand to the folks who I would likely soon entrust with my future.

I held the paper in my hands and stared at the words I had written not even a week ago. How I hated those loathsome words! They felt foreign to me, as if they were written by someone on drugs, in a fog; by someone who had most of his screws loose.

“It’s this glib, post-concussion rambling email I sent to my family and my teammates, primarily so that they would know that I had been in a serious accident, but that I was—mostly—okay. One or more ‘teammates’ forwarded the email around, and now it’s bouncing from one online bike forum to another. It’s only a matter of time before the media are gonna get their hands on this.”

I handed the printed email to Cris, and the room sat silently as she quickly read it to herself. She looked up, but didn’t speak. After a few moments, I could no longer bear the silence, so I spoke first.

“It’s not incriminating, right?” I didn’t think that it was, but I wanted to be sure.

“Incriminating? No. Callous? Yes.”

“I had a concussion and didn’t really know what I was—”

Ted stopped me in my tracks. From this point forward, he did the talking. “Right now the email doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: Because the pedestrian died, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to a year in county jail.”

I swallowed hard. For the first time in my life, I faced the prospect of going to jail. Ted must have seen the color drain from my face, because he then said, “Our first priority is making sure you don’t get charged.”

“That would be great. I don’t feel like I broke any laws out there, and I’ve been nothing but cooperative. I’m sure they’ll understand that it was nothing more than a tragic accident.”

“We’ll see about that. In the meantime, you are forbidden from speaking with anyone: the pedestrian’s family, journalists, the cops, insurance companies—no one. If anyone contacts you, send them to me. Do you understand?”

“I do,” I said, mostly because I feared the consequences of saying anything else.

“And if anything you experience strikes you as wrong or unfair, write it down, okay?”

“I’ve already started.”

“Good. My bill rate is $760 an hour. We’ll need to establish a retainer and an expense account. A $10,000 retainer and $4,000 in the expense account will do for now.”

The words for now sounded ominous. But, if I wanted the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area in my corner, it was going to cost me. I set up a wire transfer for the amount they needed. Fortunately, my wife and I had been saving aggressively for the past fifteen years, so we had some emergency cash in a separate account reserved for the unfortunate circumstances in life that just can’t be predicted.

Like being charged with vehicular manslaughter for riding a bicycle.


>> Continue to PART II: Dirty Laundry


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash Trailer

A true story by Chris Bucchere. On August 5th, 2018, the ten-week podcast series begins.

March 29th, 2012, 8:20am, Castro Street
When he regained consciousness, Chris found himself bloodied and bruised, being loaded into an ambulance. He had no idea that his life had permanently changed. Because, a few days later, an elderly man he had hit with his bicycle would die of injuries sustained in the accident. News would go viral internationally, including articles in the New York Times and Forbes magazine. The District Attorney of San Francisco would see Chris’s case as an opportunity to send a message to the city’s cyclists.

But this isn’t a story about cycling. It’s about criminal justice. It’s about prosecutors manipulating the press in order to deprive defendants of due process, where facts get misconstrued and inaccurate details leaked. It’s about social media whipping public opinion to a frenzy, giving DAs fodder for political gain. It’s about what really happens behind the headlines: who wins, who loses, who plays fair—and who doesn’t.

Bikelash is a ten-week podcast series chronicling Chris’s role in a fatal bicycle-pedestrian accident. These 107,000 words are based on court transcripts, emails exchanged with his attorney, and Chris’s in-the-moment journaling from immediately after the accident until he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter eighteen months later.

Subscribe to Bikelash on Android, iTunes, Stitcher, or where-ever you get your podcasts.

Continue reading PART I: The Accident.

Bikelash

On Sunday, August 5th, 2018, I’ll publish the first installment of a ten-week blog and podcast series Bikelash: How San Francisco created America’s first bicycle felon, chronicling my role in a bicycle/pedestrian accident that made international headlines in 2012.

Follow the story here on my blog, on medium, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

The Post-Facebook Internet

The recent Facebook scandal—in which Cambridge Analytica obtained 50 million Facebook users’ personal data—really shouldn’t have been such a big deal. By no means was it the biggest breach of data, nor a breach of the most sensitive kind of data. It wasn’t nearly as salacious as PRISM nor any of the other secret programs the NSA designed to siphon phone and internet data (which remained covert until whistleblower Edward Snowden famously told the Guardian about them in 2013).

The most—if not the only—potentially unlawful act in this saga was the deal struck to share the data between Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, a potential violation of the terms of service for the survey app that Kogan created to harvest the data in the first place. The act of collecting the data, though no longer permitted by Facebook, was perfectly lawful at the time.

So why then was this breach such a big deal?

First of all, we can universally agree that Facebook has amassed a trove of personal data larger than that of any other company on the planet. Given the obvious value of these data, Facebook is constantly targeted. When such a breach occured on the world’s largest social network, millions of people became upset, rightfully so. Facebook got pressured to explain how it happened. Still seems like no big deal.

Their explanation, however, begged an important question: Why does Facebook need all these data in the first place? That in turn led to an interesting Catch-22: In explaining the data breach, Facebook had to draw attention to its business model, namely that it collects data, anonymizes them, and sells them—albeit indirectly—to their real customers. The real customers are not us, the Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp users. No, Facebook’s customers are ad networks and advertisers, i.e. companies and people who pay to promote their products and services on Facebook.

This “revelation” should have come as no big surprise to anyone, or at least to anyone paying attention. Revenue through tailored advertising is the business model of Google, Facebook and nearly every media entity that operates online. Last year, Facebook reported that 98% of their revenue came from advertising.

Using your data (and mine and everyone else’s), Facebook built an incredibly powerful ad targeting platform, a platform we allowed them to build and deploy when we accepted their terms of service—all two (plus) billion of us.

It’s even possible—through Facebook’s publicly-available advertising platform—to target a 41-year-old man in San Francisco who speaks Spanglish, who has attended at least one Lindyhop event and who belongs to the Bay Area Esk8 group. In other words, I can target an ad so narrowly that it’s shown only to me. (I just tried this, and though the platform gave me a warning that my targeting parameters might be “too specific,” it didn’t stop me from setting up the ad.)

So this is how Facebook makes hay using our personal data. Along with paywalls/subscriptions (e.g. San Francisco Chronicle, Medium, New York Times) and donations (e.g. The Guardian, NPR, Wikipedia), selling ads targeted to people’s personal sensibilities is how hay gets made not just on Facebook, but all over the internet. If that means I get to consume ads for dance camps and wetsuits in lieu of celebrity plastic surgery disasters, then everybody wins. (Facebook infers, correctly, that I surf. O’Neill pays Facebook to advertise the wetsuit to me and other surfers, we buy the wetsuits from O’Neill. Repeat. Cha-ching.)

Somehow we got from selling wetsuits to throwing elections. To understand how our current internet failed us in order to frame to where the new internet needs to take us, it’s worth doing a shallow dive into internet history.

A Brief History of the Internet (and Cats)

The internet was never intended to be a money-making machine. In the late 60s and early 70s, large universities wired their computers together in order to share research, primarily through email (of all things) on an early version of the internet known as ARPAnet. Along the way, the DoD provided financing to create DARPAnet. In the 80s, I’m sure sharing cat pictures (uuencoded as streams of text) started to become a thing, if it wasn’t already. Even still, the internet’s only “business model” was government-sponsored academic propeller-spinning.

In 1994, with the advent of the Netscape browser, non-academics flooded onto the internet in droves. Ten years prior, I got my first email account and dial up access from AppleLink. I connected to and explored BBSs and started using protocols like Gopher and NNTP (Usenet). I read up on “netiquette,” learned how to keep my CAPS LOCK key off, how to spot an AOLer (hint: CAPS LOCK USUALLY ON) and how to construct some basic emoticons, something we once called “ASCII art.” |_|] ← That’s a coffee mug right there. Really, it is.

This early internet, on the precipice of becoming commercial, had the feel of a loosely-coupled collection of “expert communities”—for lack of a better term—scattered amongst BBSs, Usenet and AOL chatrooms. (Keep this notion of “expert communities” in mind as you continue reading; I’ll circle back to it later.)

From roughly 1994-2002, companies flocked to the internet to experiment with the web’s first “real” business model: ecommerce. For a few years, it seemed like every business needed a web storefront. However, when investors realized that selling cat food online wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be, the bubble burst. The same market forces that quickly evaporated five trillion dollars of value also declared Amazon the clear “winner” of ecommerce, proving that centralized inventory (along with on-demand inventory) and centralized technology and fulfillment logistics were the best way—if not the only way—to sell cat food online and actually turn a profit.

After a brief moment of reckoning, from the second wave of the internet—what some call Web 2.0—emerged a new, more indirect business model, this one borrowed from traditional media companies. Like newspapers and magazines, “Web 2.0” sites and applications would also run ads, but insteading of hiring professional photographers and journalists, everyday users would supply the cat photos and write the heartwarming cat stories. Sites like these could save money by letting amateurs create the content—called User Generated Content (or UGC for short)—while they collected money for every cat food ad impression (CPM), every cat photo click-thru (CPC) and every action, e.g. signing up for a site’s feline marketing content or taking a cat survey (CPA).

Naturally, the sites with the most users and the most cat photos (predominantly Facebook and Twitter) could provide the richest ad targeting platforms. Facebook’s claim of making the world more connected belied another mission: to create the richest, most effective ad-targeting platform known to mankind.

(It’s worth nothing that I’m glossing over huge swaths of the ad industry, including search ads/SEO/SEM and scores of networks that serve up ads on third-party sites and mobile applications. I’m also neglecting to talk about the mobile web in general terms, the Semantic Web, the Internet of Things and a whole host of other topics, just so we can stay focused on UGC.)

User Generated CatsContent

While it has been part of the technology toolkit and lingo for at least 15 years, many—if not most—people heard about UGC for the first time during the recent fallout from the Facebook/Kogan/Cambridge Analytica scandal. Prior to a few days ago, people thought Facebook was free; in reality it’s not. We pay for Facebook by bartering our personal information in exchange for the Facebook features we enjoy.

Perhaps “used to enjoy” would have been better phrasing, since this latest scandal left angry mobs of people joining the #DeleteFacebook movement. In many ways, they’re doing so in vain, because we would literally need to stop using our smartphones and the entire internet, change our names, addresses, hair/eye color, purchase history and a thousand other things to escape the personal data collection happening everywhere on the web.

On Facebook and elsewhere, UGC greases the gears of an enormous machine designed to turn cat photos into cash. And it works, or at least it works for a few massive companies, which seems to be a theme as far as internet companies go.

In fact, at least three times in the brief history of the internet have we seen huge oligopolies create—and consume—entire online business models: Amazon (for ecommerce), Google (for search advertising) and Facebook (for UGC advertising).

Organic growth and the acquisitions by Facebook alone resulted in more than two billion people’s personal information, likes, preferences and social interactions gettings stored inside what is effectively one enormous database.

And that finally explains why this scandal is important: because it has caused people to start asking some really good questions, like: Was it a good idea to allow companies like Facebook to give everyone a free microphone in exchange for harvesting, storing and mining everything everyone says?

It’s Not the Cat Photos; It’s the Cat Distribution

Facebook may be the biggest collector of data, but they certainly aren’t the only one. Plus, they’re not going to delete their data, as it’s the lifeblood of their company. So instead of focusing on Facebook, I want to ask a more fundamental question, one that will surely ignite the ire of free speech advocates everywhere, but one that needs to be asked regardless: Was it even a good idea to give everyone a free microphone in the first place?

Put another way, when is it a good idea—in the real, non-digital world—for us to tell something, instantly, to everyone we know: family, good friends, co-workers, acquaintances, people we just met and immediately befriended? Before Facebook, this wasn’t easily possible. We used to hide our reading materials and journals under the mattress and only send things like baby announcements to everyone we know (even then selectively skipping creepers like Uncle Charlie). Now Facebook has flipped that notion on its head. Your cat photo has more likes than my baby announcement? Does this make any kind of sense IRL? Then why should it be possible online?

But, what about free speech? Yes, in this country we are all free to say nearly anything without fear of repercussion. In another sense, however, speech isn’t really free at all. Our precious free speech is utterly worthless without distribution. Without distribution, our posts on the internet are nothing more than trees falling in the forest with no one around to listen for the sounds they might make. Distribution costs money—and that’s why we strike a Faustian promise with every word and click on Facebook. We provide the content; they provide the distribution. And we pay for the distribution, albeit indirectly, by allowing Facebook to broker our data to advertisers.

Too often and too easily is distribution confused with truth. If something is “widely reported,” that doesn’t make it factual. Therein lies problem with the awesome distribution power of Facebook: It can be used to distribute facts just as efficiently as it can to spread, um, “alternative facts.” As a result, Facebook and Twitter and other UGC sites are heavily moderated both by people and by machines. The other day, Facebook’s censorship robots blocked my friend Tim from saying “trees cause global warming.” Many artists have had their work removed for showing a little too much nipple (or a little too much something). This introduces a whole new set of problems, the most of important of which is: Do we trust Facebook to arbitrate “good” speech from “bad?” Under what or whose standards?

I had a revealing personal experience in 2012 when I helped Miso—a Google-backed venture conceived as a social media site for videos—build an application called Quips. This app would allow people to use their phones to take still images from TV shows and movies and create memes from them by adding the chunky white text we’ve come to associate with such artifacts.

Long story short: we didn’t build moderation (a common internet euphemism for censorship) into the first version of the platform. Rather, we gave people unfettered access to tools they could use to create potentially viral content. What could possibly go wrong? Within weeks, Quips had degenerated into the most profoundly hateful cesspool I’ve yet to see on the internet—and I even (sometimes) read YouTube video comments! Who knew Miso was actually short for misogyny—and racism, homophobia, xenophobia and a million other kinds of hate speech?

It was easy for us to sunset Quips and bury the steaming pile of dreck that Quippers created. It’s not so simple for Facebook.

They certainly can’t delete everything without destroying the data vital to their business model. Meanwhile trying to censor posts is an endless game of algorithmic Whack-a-Mole certain to offend the sensibilities of moles on the far-right, the far-left and every mole in between, including my friend Tim (who doesn’t actually believe that trees cause global warming; it was just a joke).

So distribution without moderation/censorship leads to a cesspool. We technologists all knew this already, but it hasn’t stopped a host of really smart people from trying to build a better moderation/censorship mousetrap. Ultimately they will fail because of (what I can only hope is merely a few) creative individuals with a lot of free time producing a seemingly-limitless supply of garbage. Or art. Or jokes! Sarcasm, something nearly impossible to detect on the web, can often be mistaken for hate speech, especially when the whole point of the sarcasm was to raise awareness of the hate speech in the first place.

When faced with an intractable situation like “stamping out misinformation on the internet,” it helps to reframe the problem by looking at the actual root cause. The cause is not fake news per se, nor ad networks, nor Facebook, Cambridge Analytica nor even UGC. Rather, the naive ideology of the internet coupled with the worst traits in humanity formed ideal grounds for a Tragedy of the Commons: If you create something open and free, some people will eventually find a way to exploit it for their own benefit and thereby ruin it for everyone else.

Emerging from the Cesspool

Even though it’s likely a very small segment of “bad actors” who are ruining the internet for everyone, I’m proposing a radical shift: let’s leave the internet for what it is (a cesspool) and build a better one. What if we could start over with the same lofty goals—connecting the world by sharing information—but this time build an internet with failsafes that would prevent us from creating yet another cesspool of misinformation and hate speech?

I’m not suggesting that we shut down the internet, but instead that we build something atop existing protocols that helps the world organize information, validate claims, and establish fact; in other words, we need to build an internet that lives up to its early design considerations, which, obviously, did not include building a cesspool of falsehoods and hate speech.

A recent NYT article really drove this point home for me: “The downgrading of experience and devaluing of expertise can be explained partly by the internet, which allows people to assemble their own preferred information and affords them the delusion of omniscience.”

Note it said “partly.” The internet is partly at fault. Humanity bears responsibility for the rest.

So yes, humanity is a big part of the problem. But it’s also the solution. For every bad actor, there are thousands and thousands of good ones.

What if we could build an internet wherein good actors could drive out bad?

What if we could create an internet consisting only of factual information? An internet devoid of corporate interests? An internet of real people wherein everyone could only interact with the system using a proven identity?

What if we could finally draw the line between private and non-private digital communications, such that private conversations could remain truly private?

What if all information was organized into siloes, like the “expert communities” of the early internet, but codified into a meritocratic hierarchy where every claim needed to be vetted by an established community of experts? What if experts could delegate privileges to other experts who prove their worth through contributions? What if the information curated remained free to the consumer, but provided a basic income to its creators and gardners for the work they put into curating the information? What if this internet could remain completely read-only to everyone not designated an expert in a particular silo?

Web X.0

Much of the technology we need to build something like this already exists. Signal, Keybase and scores of other platforms offer peer-to-peer (serverless) encrypted messaging. StackExchange already provides a model for curated expert communities, entirely based upon Q&A. Modeling the new internet off of StackExchange (or Quora or WhySaurus), each question response could be stored as a block in a blockchain with experts from the appropriate communities recruited to validate the responses, much like block validation already works today for cryptocurrencies.

Every information silo would require a community of experts to curate it. But what good are these experts if we can’t check their credentials and contributions to validate that they really are experts? The missing piece here is global identity management, i.e. a way to prove that we are who we say we are. We need a biometric-seeded revocable cryptographic key that would allow us to conduct business using our IRL identities or with pseudonyms that the owners can prove are theirs (but not the other way around). The Human Unique Identifier (or HUID) described by the ambitious Cicada Project proposes a clever design for this.

Creating a secure, un-spoofable identity system is a fundamental challenge, but it’s surely not the only challenge. In building this new internet, our biggest enemy is what we don’t know—and what we won’t know until we we’ve already written oodles of code and tests, as is often the case with software projects.

But we can’t let fear of the unknown stop us. The time has come—in fact it’s long overdue—to create a new internet, an internet that can’t be defeated by Nigerian scammers, Russian fake news bots or that 400-pound kid in his bed somewhere. Let’s leave the existing internet intact but teach our kids that they should assume that nearly everything they read there is either bullshit or sponsored bullshit. If vetted, cite-able, factual information is what they seek: They need to consult Web X.0.

And yes, this new internet would be read-only for 99.9999% of the world’s population. This would leave about 7,000 experts in control of all the world’s public factual information, with the ability to delegate more experts as needed. No corporations would be allowed; no corporate interests would be tolerated. In this way, the denizens of the new internet would maintain all the world’s information much like the denizens of the early internet “expert communities” on BBSs, Usenet and chatrooms, but this time with HUIDs and block validation keeping everyone honest.

People could still interact with corporations on the “old internet,” but we could use the Web X.0 HUID to doll out Basic Attention Tokens (or something like them) to allow people to decide for themselves which revocable personal information they want to share with commercial entities—and get compensated with cryptocurrency in return. In other words, corporations would pay consumers directly for paying attention to their messages, eliminating the layers of ad network middlemen who get paid for matching companies to consumers.

The Cicada Project takes this a step further by adding a secure direct democracy component, which would allow populations small and large to self-govern. Direct democracies are notoriously disastrous (e.g. Athens) but given that two of our last three presidents took office despite losing the popular vote, maybe is an idea worth considering again.

Then again maybe direct democracy is biting off more than we can chew. Maybe we should start by building and deploying the HUID on the existing internet and then go from there.

Maybe this is all hogwash.

But maybe—thanks to Facebook, Kogan and Cambridge Analytica—we’re finally starting to ask the right questions.

Make America Kittens Again

Adorable Tomasina, available for adoption at the SFSPCA.

America, lend me your ear.

This has got to stop. We’ve fallen prey to the greatest con in the history of mankind. We sold our liberty not to Putin, but to something far more sinister: a reality TV personality. He has turned our fragile democracy into a particularly bad episode of the Jerry Springer show. But times a billion. And a billion times worse.

There’s only one solution. Everyone needs to install Make American Kittens Again, a browser extension that replaces images of these shysters with kittens. We also need to build one that rewrites every Trump headline as: “Wow, Look How Fucking Cute This Kitten Is!”

Better yet, Dear Media: Just do this for us. Every time Trump says anything, just write a story about a really cute kitten or cat. Include lots of pictures.

In case you were wondering, this is why we put all those cats on the internet in the first place.

Let’s end this reality show by deploying the cats and showing this administration who’s really in charge: we, citizens of the internet.

Internet: 1, Trump, et. al.: 0

Let’s do this.