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Cycling SSU professor remains critical after hit-and-run crash

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat: Cycling SSU professor remains critical after hit-and-run crash

By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Saturday, June 9, 2012

Two off-duty law enforcement officers — best friends and neighbors — were out on their Rohnert Park street Friday afternoon and discussing a hit-and-run crash earlier that day in which a bicyclist was badly hurt when, as one said, “lightning struck.”

As the two men talked, another neighbor drove up to his home in a tannish-gold pickup with the sideview mirror missing.

The front end was damaged and it matched the overall description of a truck, believed to have hit a bike-riding Sonoma State University professor, that CHP Officer Robert Powers had spent much of his work shift trying to track down.

Powers and Rohnert Park Public Safety Sgt. Jeff Nicks approached the owner of the truck, Robert Cowart, 68, and reminded him who they were. They noted the damage to his Dodge Ram and asked him if he had perhaps driven on Petaluma Hill Road earlier that day.

Cowart said ‘yes,' and even admitted having struck a bicyclist on his way to work Friday morning, but said he thought the cyclist was OK, both officers said.

Cowart did not bring the subject up again as he and Nicks continued chatting and Powers discreetly stepped away to call his office and initiate an arrest.

Neither of the officers had more than a passing acquaintanceship with Cowart, who “spoke matter of factly” on the subject of the crash, said Nicks, who supervises criminal investigations for Rohnert Park police.

Cowart was arrested for suspicion of felony hit-and-run and was released from the jail overnight after posting bail, jail personnel said.

A phone call to his home and a knock on his front door Saturday both elicited a response from a man inside who said “it was a hard time,” and neither Cowart nor family members wanted to discuss the case.

The CHP, which has seized Cowart's truck, believes he was southbound on Petaluma Hill Road just north of East Railroad Avenue when he drifted onto the paved shoulder, struck retired SSU professor Steve Norwick on his bike from behind and launched him into a drainage ditch.

An environmental studies professor at SSU for nearly four decades, Norwick, also 68, had tried to retire several times only to be lured back into the classroom, university personnel said.

But he'd recently decided he really was done, stepping down in May after the spring semester ended. He was in the midst of cleaning out his office of 37 years when the accident occurred shortly after 8:30 a.m. Friday, friend and former colleague Rolfe Erickson said.

Erickson, a retired geology professor, and Vin Hoagland, a professor emeritus of chemistry, had made a habit in recent years of meeting at Norwick's Petaluma Hill Road home to bike to Penngrove for coffee and conversation.

Hoagland was delayed Friday, so the other two began their ride without him, traveling barely a mile before the “terrible event,” Erickson said.

Leading by about 10 feet, Erickson didn't see the truck coming.

“All I was aware of was an explosion of debris and of Steve blasting by me,” he said. “I was unscathed, which is kind of amazing to me, because I was right there in the blast of debris but didn't actually get hit by anything.”

Cowart, who owns a well-drilling firm in Petaluma, later told a CHP investigator that he was late for work when the accident occurred.

Erickson said the truck never slowed, but had to veer back into its lane to avoid hitting him.

“I have almost no impression of the truck except for a dark shape whizzing by,” he said.