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Suspect in Penngrove hit-and-run cyclist crash in court

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat: Suspect in Penngrove hit-and-run cyclist crash in court

By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 

A Rohnert Park man charged with felony hit and run driving after a bicyclist was run down last week made his first court appearance Wednesday in what proved to be a stunning development.

Shambling down the aisle steered by one of several attorneys, Robert Cowart, 68, appeared unsteady and unsure as the judge and attorneys discussed his case.

Among the revelations were three prior drunken driving convictions in 1989 and 2005, as well as a recent stroke and aneurysm that may be impairing blood flow in his brain, according to defense attorney George Boisseau.

Cowart, his attorney said, needs to remain out of custody to get medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The defendant was taken from court in a wheelchair by a man who first placed Cowart's hands, one-by-one, in his lap. He left surrounded by attorneys and family members who have steadfastly declined to comment on the case or his condition.

For the dozens of local cyclists and friends who converged on the courthouse in support of victim Steve Norwick, a retired Sonoma State University environmental studies professor, Cowart's obvious infirmity was a shock.

“I'm still digesting,” Gary Helfrich, the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said in the aftermath of the brief hearing. “It's unbelievably horrible. It's tragic on both sides.”

“There's clearly more going on than we can understand,” said Sandra Lupien, the coalition's outreach director, “and it's also clear that he probably shouldn't have been driving. It's very sad.”

It remains unclear if Norwick, an avid cyclist and environmentalist who delighted in sharing his love of nature with students and colleagues, will recover from the injuries. He was struck from behind on Friday as he rode south on Petaluma Hill Road to meet with friends for breakfast.

One of his regular cycling companions, retired geology Professor Rolfe Erickson, was riding just ahead of Norwick on the paved shoulder and described a sudden debris storm from behind and “Steve blasting by me” from the force of the collision.

The driver didn't stop, though witnesses described a champagne-colored pickup truck later determined to be a Dodge based on a side-view mirror that was sheared off.

Cowart was arrested later that day when he returned home and two neighbors, both off-duty law enforcement officers, noticed the missing mirror and front-end damage on his truck, which matched the description of the pickup that hit Norwick.

Cowart, who is retiring from his family's well-drilling business, told authorities he did not stop because he was late for work and because it did not appear that the bicyclist was badly hurt.

Nowwick remains in a coma at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where his wife and two daughters have been holding vigil.

Vin Hoagland, another retired SSU professor who usually accompanies Norwick and Erickson on the Friday rides, said he's been told there is usually about a 10-day window during which the prognosis for someone in Norwick's condition should become more apparent.

“Steve is a strong guy,” he said, holding out hope for improvement.

Cowart remains free after posting bond for $30,000 bail but was ordered to return to court Monday morning for continued arraignment and entry of plea.

Deputy District Attorney Troye Shaffer said she should have updated information on Norwick's medical condition by then, while Boisseau said he would have a better sense of his client's issues and the case.

Judge Robert LaForge also said he would consider Shaffer's bid to raise Cowart's bail to $100,000.