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Driver cleared in cyclists' deaths

The San Antonio Express: Driver cleared in cyclists' deaths

Jury says wreck not felony.

By Craig Kapitan
Saturday, September 8, 2012

A wreck that resulted in the deaths of two bicyclists — and sparked outrage in San Antonio's cycling community — did not amount to a felony, a jury decided Friday after two hours of deliberations.

Gilbert John Sullaway Jr., 43, could have faced up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for the Oct. 1, 2009, deaths of Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler.

The married couple were sharing a tandem bicycle on a wide, paved shoulder of Texas 16 when they were struck by the defendant's pickup.

Sullaway's family members wept and hugged defense attorneys Mark and Stephanie Stevens after state District Judge Angus McGinty read the verdict to a courtroom filled nearly to capacity.

“My thoughts and prayers have been with them daily and my thoughts and prayers will continue to be with them daily,” Sullaway said of the Bruehler family members, telling reporters he didn't want to say anything else out of respect for them.

Outside the courtroom, Gary Bruehler said he respected the jury's decision but was disappointed — not only for his son and daughter-in-law but for the bicycling community as a whole.

“I feel like they've gotten a bum rap,” he said of cyclists. The verdict, he said, was “kind of a shot in the bottom to the biking community. ... Why don't they just put a big target on their backs? It's just pathetic.”

Hundreds of cyclists expressing concern about unsafe drivers rode together to the Bruehlers' funeral three years ago, wearing bright jerseys and helmets like the couple did when they were hit. The wreck appeared to renew resentment among many over Gov. Rick Perry's decision months earlier to veto a statewide safe-passing law.

Prosecutors on Friday argued that Sullaway should have been aware of the “substantial and unjustifiable risk” of failing to control his speed and stay on the roadway.

There's no explanation as to why he never saw two brightly dressed people riding an 8-foot-long bicycle, Assistant District Attorney Lorina Rummel said.

“This case was a tragedy that was easily preventable,” prosecutor Alaina Altis added. “All he had to do was keep his eyes on the road, his speed down and stay in his lane.”

But Sullaway's mistakes that day could have been made by anyone in the courtroom, the defense countered.

“Have you ever drifted? Have you ever looked off the roadway?” Mark Stevens asked jurors. “That's what people do. It doesn't mean they're criminals when they do it.”

During the two-week trial, accident reconstruction experts for both sides determined Sullaway had been driving roughly 54 mph when he struck the couple. But they tussled for days over whether Sullaway had been driving 79 mph when he veered off the pavement and skidded for 168 feet before the collision, as prosecutors asserted, or if he simply looked away for a split second, veered and hit the couple without having a chance to brake at all, as defense lawyers said.

The speed limit along the rural highway, popular among bicyclists, was 65 mph.

Prosecutors said their expert's calculations were supported by an eye witness who told jurors he watched Sullaway drive unsafely and speed by him at an estimated 85 mph shortly before the wreck.

The Bruehlers' orphaned daughter, Kylie, turned 10 earlier this week and hasn't been told about the trial, her grandfather said. Gary Bruehler spent a year writing a book about his son for his granddaughter to someday have and he plans to give her a cross at her baptism containing ashes of both of her parents.

“This (trial) unfortunately seems to have brought us back to ground zero,” he said of the family's anguish. “Personally, I was hoping that there would be at least probation — maybe loss of driving privileges for two to three years.”