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
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 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.
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.
“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.
24 April 2012—26 days since the accident
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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