By Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel
May 18, 2010 7:00 a.m. |
Allen Belonger’s death is essentially a closed case for Iowa County law enforcement.
No tickets were issued and no criminal charges are being pursued in the crash that killed the 62-year-old bicyclist on July 11, 2009.
Fellow members of the Spring City Spinners Bicycle Club are not yet ready for such an end.
Their frustration over Belonger’s death and the lack of legal consequences for the driver has opened a new sense of advocacy.
In his honor, the group has organized its first Ride of Silence, in Waukesha on Wednesday, as part of the international moving memorial for cyclists who have been killed or injured while riding. At least seven Rides of Silence are scheduled in Wisconsin, all starting at 7 p.m.
State data show Belonger was one of seven bicyclists killed in crashes in Wisconsin in 2009. Eight died in 2008.
For the group in Waukesha, the silent, slow-moving procession will cover about eight miles and a wide range of emotions, from grief to anger.
The lack of any action against the young driver frustrates the friends who enjoyed Belonger’s enthusiasm and steady approach to cycling.
“I’m appalled that there was no ticket,” said Laura Fisher, president of the Spring City Spinners and a lead organizer of the Ride of Silence.
“It’s not that I have any hatred toward the kid who hit Allen, but had he been going down the road in a vehicle, and he had been killed, I’m certain a ticket would be issued,” Fisher said. “It sends the message that the cyclists shouldn’t have been out there anyway. It makes me sad and angry at the same time.”
According to the crash reports, a motorist, then 16, turned in front of Belonger on a rural road in the Town of Hollandale. The impact with the passenger-side door of the pickup truck killed Belonger almost instantly.
Cyclists assess the scene at the crash that killed Allen Belonger. Photo from the Iowa County Sheriff’s Department.
He and two of his riding pals from the Spring City Spinners had been participating in the Insane Terrain Challenge Ride that morning.
The driver told sheriff’s investigators he had been drinking with his father the night before the crash — about six beers from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Hollandale Fireman’s Picnic — according to the sheriff’s department reports. He lives in New Berlin but spent last summer in Hollandale, and was turning into a driveway at that home when the crash occurred.
(The Journal Sentinel is not naming him because he is a juvenile.)
With roughly six hours sleep, but sober, the driver said he saw Belonger and the other cyclists but underestimated their speed coming down the hill toward him. He reported that the bike just ran into him.
Initially, a sheriff’s deputy issued the driver a civil ticket for causing injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle. When a test showed zero alcohol in his blood, that ticket was dismissed.
Iowa County Dist. Atty. Larry Nelson then made his decision not to pursue criminal charges, after reviewing the sheriff’s reports and a crash reconstruction prepared by the Wisconsin State Patrol. He said it appeared the driver may have been negligent, failed to yield the right of way to Belonger, but that the action did not arise to the threshold of criminal negligence.
“The most difficult element is that the driver knew or reasonably should have known that his conduct was likely to result in death or great bodily harm,” Nelson said. “We didn’t believe we could prove that element.”
Belonger’s speed coming down a hill toward the motorist was one of the factors that weighted into the conclusion, Nelson said.
He was uncertain why the driver was not ticketed for failing to yield the right of way.
The attorney who represents the driver and his family said Monday that the young man was not responsible for the fatality and no tickets were warranted.
Much of the blame for the crash falls on Belonger and the ride organizers, said Paul Bucher, the former Waukesha County district attorney.
“There was no crime. There was no citation to be issued,” he said.
“(The driver) had absolutely no liability in this case. In fact, if there is going to be blame assessed, it could be pointed in different directions.
“(He) was turning into the driveway. The sun was directly in his vision. The individual was pedaling with his head down and didn’t even look up.”
According to Bucher, the Insane Terrain ride was promoted as a “speed run,” organized to utilize the hills west of Madison. He said an accident reconstruction estimated Belonger may have approached 60 mph prior to the impact.
Information from the ride Web site shows a different promotion of the ride. The Insane Terrain and rides like it focus more on the challenge of climbing up the hills, rather than speeding down them.
Belonger’s case has generated some interest among cyclists beyond the club he joined after moving to Waukesha from Phoenix, Ariz.
“It makes me sad that a motorist in my state can drive in such a way as to kill another person and get no charges,” said Greg Ferguson,” a Madison-area cyclist and competitor. “Motorists are too often deadly, and need to pay attention, slow down, and give their full attention to the deadly vehicle they are driving.”
Kevin Hardman, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, plans to join Fisher and the Spinners for their inaugural Ride of Silence on Wednesday. The club has been in his thoughts since Belonger’s death.
“This case was an absolute tragedy and it appears a life has been lost, and we’re not seeing where the ramifications were laid down,” he said.
The Ride of Silence in Waukesha will start at the Waukesha State Bank Parking Lot, 101 W. Bank St. The Milwaukee-area ride will start at the North Shore Wheel & Sprocket, 6940 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point.