In Ohio, The Hit/Run Epidemic Continues – 2 Cyclists Killed in One Weekend

Hit & Run crashes are an epidemic in the U.S. In 2016 there were 1980 fatal hit/skip crashes resulting in 2049 fatalities. This was the highest number recorded since NHTSA began tracking the data in the 1970s. Of those, 1398 crashes involved NON-VEHICLE OCCUPANTS such as pedestrians & bicyclists. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released its “Research Brief” noting that while there were more hit/run crashes in larger states, when you looked at rates relative to population you find that New Mexico, Louisiana, and Florida lead the league.

Pedestrians and bicycle operators obviously present the hit/run motorist with a slim likelihood that damage to the hit/run vehicle will be significant enough to avoid a getaway.

Last weekend in Ohio we had TWO cyclists killed by hit/run motorists.

In Richland County, the man alleged to be driving the truck that struck & killed 13 yr old Luke Newswanger has been arrested. The crash happened at 9:30 am on Sunday morning. The truck allegedly driven by Bud Thornberry was going in the same direction and struck Luke from behind before driving off.

In College Hill, near Cincinnati, however, a hit/run killer is still on the loose.

37 yr old James Towns “rode his bike everywhere” and was struck & killed early Saturday morning. The motorist made the decision to flee, and leave Mr. Towns to die on the side of the road… I’m sure police are checking security footage from businesses, doorbell cameras and any other source of possible information but the story indicates that they have no leads at this point.

We don’t know anything, yet, about Mr. Towns’ killer, but we know a lot about Mr. Towns. We know his foster parents and friends are grieving his senseless, horrific death. “Teddy” was described as a “sweet young man” who rode his bike to work and was returning home from work at 1am on Saturday morning when he was run down and left to die.

In a case I handled some years ago, a boy was struck & left on the road in Columbus. He was not discovered for several hours. We later received a call from an anonymous source that a woman who worked in a bar had had a crash & was getting her car repaired. Police were able to search & get the windshield out of the garbage and then tie DNA from the windshield back to the boy who was killed.

It took a long time for the woman to be indicted, over a year. She entered a guilty plea to a felony hit & run.

This case was caused me to get far more deeply involved in the criminal side of these crashes. We had settled the wrongful death claim with the woman’s insurer while the criminal case was percolating. Many months later I learned about the guilty plea, which had flown under the radar. Mom attended the sentencing hearing alone.

Today I help organize local advocates, keep them aware of the progress of a case like this, talk to the media, write about the case and otherwise try to keep the case in the public eye. I was not doing that back when this case was happening.

I don’t know if it would have helped, but the woman who killed the boy in Columbus got a sentence of… 30 days… for a felony hit & run… a sentence that was served in April/May, during Bike Month… a true “wrist slap” – actually more like a slap in the FACE to the family & friends of the boy who was killed…

I haven’t followed the defendant since her 30 days in jail concluded but I can only hope that this sentence was enough to punish and to put her on a better path for her life.

I think about that case often because the boy who was killed was very similar to my son…and I regret not being “in the loop” during the criminal case enough to get the word out about the sentencing. To get cyclists to attend, en masse, and to speak out to the Judge.

Since then I have testified during sentencing hearings about the impact these cases have on the cycling community and why stiff sentences are, in my mind, needed both as punishment and as a deterrent.

Until “Hit & Run” is as bad or worse than “Hit & Stay” we’re going to see this Hit/Run epidemic continue…as it did … TWICE this past weekend in Ohio… with the most vulnerable users of the roads- cyclists & pedestrians – as the most likely victims…

In Ohio there are currently several folks serving lengthy prison sentences for killing cyclists in hit/run crashes.

Brandon Marksberry – Marksberry killed attorney Steve Adams. Adams was a long time criminal defense lawyer in Cincinnati, handling many DUI cases. Adams was also a serious athlete, an Ironman finisher, and avid cyclist. Steve went out for an early Sunday morning bike ride. He invited some friends but ended up going out solo and was struck from behind and left for dead by Marksberry. In a truly bizarre twist, Marksberry’s MOTHER was later charged with murder for killing someone in the same neighborhood.

Anthony Gerike – Gerike is near the end of his sentence. In 2007 he was sentenced to concurrent 8 year terms for killing Cincinnati Cycle Club members Amy Gehring & Terry Walker on… again… a nice Sunday morning. Amy’s daughter and Terry’s fiancĂ© were in the group of 10 or so riders on a casual rural club ride when Gerike, with alcohol, cocaine & pot in his system, drove left of center for some time before slamming into the group. Gerike tried to run away but ended up hitting another vehicle.

Gerike is preparing for a return to society as his sentence expires in a few weeks – on Christmas Eve, 2021.

Steve Sickle – In May 2017, Sickle was loaded up with heroin when he went off the road and slammed into cyclist Bill Rust, who was riding along in the berm of US 50, also called The Heroin Highway. Sickle drove off & left Bill Rust to die on the side of the road. Sickle was quickly found and was convicted & sentenced to 14 years by Judge Steve Martin in Cincinnati. His current release date is in 2031…

Melinda Woodall – In 2016 Melinda Woodall was loaded up with heroin when she slammed into Michael Prater on US 50 and drove off to hide. She was quickly found and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide. After entering a Guilty plea, Judge Foley gave her 11 years in prison.

I represented the Prater family, and testified at Woodall’s sentencing hearing. I had done some homework on her prior history and brought out some data that the Court had not seen relating to prior instances of bad conduct.

Todd Shaw – Shaw was a serial drinker/driver with a lengthy rap sheet of prior arrests. Shaw was drinking in a bar on 2/21/2014 and left with a six pack when he struck cyclist Fred Carey, a beloved local teacher. Shaw then took off to hide from police. He was sentenced to a 9.5 year term in 2014.

Kelly Cox – Cox was… interesting… and tragic. She was in complete denial of her drinking problem and destroyed not one, but two families – Chip Henry’s and her own. In 2011 Cox was driving along with a BAC of 0.28%, more than 3 times the legal limit, when she slammed into Judge Chip Henry, who was taking a bike ride. Cox left Judge Henry on the side of the road and drove on. Oh, Cox had her 2 kids with her.

Cox said she thought she might have hit “something” and her daughter said, “no I think you hit SOMEONE” – Cox drove home. She returned afterwards and was arrested and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, leaving the scene and endangering her children.

She fought, without success, to keep the BAC findings out of evidence and then entered a guilty plea. Cox claimed, even at her plea hearing, that she’d only had a little to drink.

Judge Chip Henry was a well known, and liked, Probate/Juvenile judge in Geauga County. A visiting judge had to be brought in to handle the case. After Cox entered her plea, a sentencing report was prepared and Judge Mitrovich was having NONE of Cox’s complete BS.

Having done some alcohol work on other cases, and having dealt with expert forensic toxicologists, I remember being stunned by Cox’s statement, under oath to a Court while pleading guilty, that she’d only had “a glass.”

In one of my cases a toxicologist testified that a “good” drunk – one who was used to be drunk – could effectively fool people by behaving in a relatively socially acceptable manner. However, the impact of the alcohol the skillset one needs to pilot a two ton bowling ball is still there, even when the drunk pretends to be OK. The eyesight, reflexes, multi-tasking ability and more are impacted. In one study even ER docs were fooled by drunks who had BACs in excess of 0.30!

Judge Mitrovich wasn’t fooled, and gave Kelly Cox a 9.5 year sentence. It appears that she is still an inmate at the Northeast Pre-Release Center, but on her way to being released.

Judge Chip Henry is still dead though. His family, I am sure, still grieves his loss. His friends wish he was there, riding bikes again. We can only hope that “the system” works – and that Kelly Cox comes out of prison a changed woman, one who wants to do some GOOD in society… we’ll see…

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