By Craig Kapitan – Express-News
Web Posted: 10/01/2010 12:00 CDT
A local businessman who struck and killed two bicyclists in a wreck along Texas 16 a year ago today, causing an uproar in the cycling community, was indicted Thursday on two counts of criminally negligent homicide.
Gilbert John Sullaway Jr., 41, could face up to 10 years in prison if prosecutors prove he used his Ford F-150 as a deadly weapon while failing to control it, “maintain a proper lookout” and “timely apply brakes.”
Earlier this year, Sullaway and his insurance companies reached a $650,000 wrongful death settlement with the fathers of Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler, who left behind a now-8-year-old daughter.
The couple were riding a tandem bicycle about three miles north of Helotes the morning of Oct. 1, 2009, when authorities say Sullaway veered off the highway and hit them.
Sullaway didn’t appear to be intoxicated and was driving about 70 mph in a 65-mph zone, Sheriff’s Office officials said at the time. No traffic citations were issued, and the case was handed to the district attorney’s office in November without a recommendation about whether to pursue it.
Since then, prosecutors hired an independent accident reconstructionist and conducted their own investigation, First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said.
The timing of the grand jury indictment — on the eve of the one-year anniversary and as local bicyclists are gearing up for a weekend memorial ride — was purely coincidental, he said.
“People are going to ask what makes this different from other accidents,” Herberg said. “It’s something you know when you see it.
“What he did has to be grossly different from what a normal person would do. If a jury decides his driving was reasonable, he will be found not guilty.”
Attorney Aric Garza, who represented Sullaway in the civil suit, said in a written statement Thursday that his client denies any criminal wrongdoing.
“As we’ve said before, our heartfelt prayers and thoughts go out to the entire Bruehler family, especially their young daughter,” Garza said in the statement. “However, by indicting Mr. Sullaway, this tragedy is simply being compounded by another.”
Through his attorney, Sullaway declined to comment.
In its aftermath, the wreck became a lightning rod for a continuing debate over driving safety and proposed laws intended to protect bicyclists.
The cycling community already was angry over Gov. Rick Perry’s decision months before the wreck to veto a bill that would have made it a Class B misdemeanor for motorists to get too close to bicyclists.
Since them, San Antonio, Helotes and New Braunfels have passed their own city versions of the bill. Robin Stallings, executive director of safety advocacy group Bike Texas, said legislators plan to introduce the statewide legislation again in 2011.
“Often, bicyclists feel that there is never a punishment,” he said. “Drivers, who have life and death in their hands, need to stay in their lane and share the road with all of the road users.”
Steven Lea, a cyclist and Bruehler family friend, said he sympathizes with the driver. But, he said, he also is discouraged that motorists, unless under the influence of drugs or alcohol or they left the scene of the crash, rarely appear to face punishment if they injure or kill cyclists.
“I think there is often the presumption (among law enforcement) that a bicyclist does not belong on a roadway,” he said.
Gregory Bruehler’s father, Gary Bruehler, said Thursday he believes the grand jury had a difficult decision to make but the group “took the approach that needs to be taken.”
The past year has been “miserable” for the Bruehler family, he said, but the couple’s child, Kylie, seems to be coping well given the circumstances.
As the anniversary passes today, Bruehler said he probably will take his granddaughter to the grocery store to purchase helium balloons, attach a note and “let her float them off to Mommy and Daddy.”
“Things can happen in a split second, and I think that’s what happened,” he added, urging motorists to pay closer attention to the road. “When you look at this situation, everybody’s a loser.”
Staff Writer Colin McDonald contributed to this report.