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Cyclists have a lot riding on L.A. driver's trial

The Los Angeles Times: Cyclists have a lot riding on L.A. driver’s trial

Bike riders see the case as a test of the system’s support for their rights.

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Doctor denies trying to injure cyclists

By Jack Leonard
November 1, 2009

Like many avid cyclists, Rick Wurtz has his share of horror stories from the road.

His closest call came as he pedaled along an open highway in Montana and a big rig rushed by within inches of his handlebars, passing so close that the truck’s wake blew him off the road.

There is little more terrifying to a cyclist than sitting astride 20 pounds of carbon fiber and aluminum when a motorist encased in 2 tons of steel makes a sudden right turn or bumps the riders.

Yet for Wurtz and other cyclists, few episodes have reinforced the dangers as powerfully as last year’s crash in which a Brentwood doctor is accused of slamming on the brakes of his car in front of two bike riders, injuring both. One cyclist was propelled face-first into the rear window. The other was sent hurtling to the pavement.

For the last three weeks, the assault trial of Dr. Christopher Thompson has drawn the attention of cyclists nationwide but has especially galvanized the swelling ranks of Los Angeles’ tight-knit cycling community, whose members have long felt like second-class citizens in a city in love with its cars.

The case is being tried at a time when more people are turning to two wheels for commuting and recreation. Cyclists are asserting their rights as never before. In Los Angeles, advocates are pushing for more bike lanes and other road improvements, a cyclists’ bill of rights and more protection from police.

As they demand more respect from motorists, many cyclists see Thompson’s trial as a test of the justice system’s commitment to protecting the rights of bike riders. They point to the case as an extreme example of what they see all the time: arrogant drivers who either unwittingly or deliberately push bike riders aside.

"It’s a fear that just goes to the core of every road cyclist," said Wurtz, an airline pilot. "You’re at the mercy of the vehicles. . . . It’s terrifying."

Thompson, 60, is battling serious criminal charges, including mayhem, reckless driving causing injury and assault with a deadly weapon -- his car.

Prosecutors accuse the doctor of deliberately slamming on his brakes in front of the cyclists. Thompson insists that he never intended to hurt anyone and that the crash was a terrible accident.

Jurors are scheduled to resume deliberating Monday.

Wurtz is part of a steady trickle of cyclists who have made the journey to the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s airport branch -- some by bicycle -- to watch the trial for themselves. Among them is Joel Greenberg, a retired car dealer, who went in part "to let it be known that cyclists are concerned with this type of behavior."

VeloNews, a Boulder, Colo.-based magazine about competitive cycling, is covering the trial gavel to gavel. And some cyclist blogs are running regular updates, including one that posts under the headline "Evil on trial."

But cyclists are also on trial.

Peter Swarth, Thompson’s attorney, has sought to portray riders in the case as foul-mouthed road hogs with little respect for motorists. The defendant testified that he and his neighbors were upset at cyclists running stop signs and blocking motorists by riding side by side along Mandeville Canyon Road.

"I don’t have a problem with cyclists; I have a problem with their behavior," he told a courtroom packed with supporters and cyclists.

The narrow Brentwood street, lined with multimillion-dollar homes, has become a popular route for cyclists. The road’s winding, five-mile climb gives riders the workout they crave in a shady setting surrounded by the well-to-do.

"It’s a beautiful road," Ron Peterson told jurors.

Peterson, a slim, wiry veteran rider who coaches the cycling teams at USC and UCLA, was among a large group of more than 100 cyclists who took part in a holiday ride July 4 last year.

The group rode up Mandeville Canyon Road in a long line, then descended in twos and threes. Peterson, 41, was riding a 56-centimeter-frame carbon fiber Specialized Tarmac road bike that one expert estimated was worth as much as $8,000. He descended with another cyclist, whom he coached, Christian Stoehr, 30.

The two were traveling about 30 mph -- the speed limit on the road -- when they heard a car honking behind them. Behind the wheel of a red Infiniti was Thompson, a pudgy, veteran emergency room physician who had lived on the road since 1987. Wearing blue scrubs, Thompson was heading to work at Beverly Hospital in Montebello.

The cyclists testified that they began maneuvering to ride single file. The Infiniti sped past within a foot of Peterson’s handlebars and the driver shouted to them to ride single file. Peterson swore at him. "He was acting like a bully," Peterson told jurors.

What happened next remains in dispute.

Peterson and Stoehr say the Infiniti pulled in front of them and braked hard. Thompson, who contends that the cyclists never moved into single file, said he felt uncomfortable behind them so he drove wide around the riders and pulled to the curb at what he thought was a safe distance. He denied slamming on his brakes.

What is beyond dispute is that Peterson’s bicycle hit the car’s bumper, flinging him through the rear window.

"It felt like a wall," Peterson said. His two front teeth were broken. The impact and glass shards nearly tore his nose from his face, requiring reconstructive surgery. Blood spattered the sedan’s trunk. Stoehr landed in front of the car and suffered a separated shoulder.

Thompson called 911. A recording of the call picked up Thompson telling one of the cyclists: "Get your bike out of the road, why don’t you?"

The doctor told the 911 operator about the profanity the cyclists yelled at him. "I slammed on my brakes. They went into me."

The operator asked if the injuries were serious.

"Not really, but they’ll tell you that," Thompson replied.

When LAPD Officer Robert Rodriguez arrived, Thompson told him that he came across three cyclists -- not two -- riding alongside one another and shouted at them to ride single file. The cyclists flipped him off and yelled back, the doctor said.

"I passed them up and stopped in front of them to teach them a lesson," Thompson said, according to Rodriguez. "I’m tired of them. I’ve lived here for years. and they always ride like this."

On the stand, Thompson denied making the incriminating remarks.

But Rodriguez insisted that he knew what he had heard.

"The statement was so shocking . . . that it just burned into my brain," he testified.

Thompson’s attorney implied that the cyclists were partly to blame for the crash. Citing reports from expert witnesses, he said the riders had enough room to avoid the car.

Prosecutors say the collision was the latest in a series of aggressive confrontations Thompson has had with cyclists on the same road.

Among them was a strikingly similar episode four months earlier in which two other cyclists accused Thompson of trying to run them off the road and slamming on his brakes in front of them.

"He drove like a raging maniac," Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Stone told jurors.

Thompson disputed the account, saying he and a passenger felt threatened. He told jurors that he honked and told the riders to ride single file but that one "shot me the shaft," so he stopped to get their names. When one cyclist hit his car, he drove away.

"I was frightened," he said. "They were acting crazy."

Thompson testified that he and neighbors agreed they needed to identify misbehaving cyclists. With a photograph of the offenders, the homeowners’ association could contact their cycling club to complain.

When he encountered the cyclists on the July 4 ride, Thompson said, he decided to stop and take a photo of them.

"I have spent my whole life trying to take care of people," Thompson told jurors, "not hurt them."