Houston woman arrested in cyclist’s hit-and-run death
Police arrested a Houston woman Wednesday on a charge of hit and run stemming from what authorities say was a night of drinking and driving that led to her striking and killing a local cyclist.
Chelsea Norman's death early December on her way home from work galvanized the city's bike riding community and spurred calls for justice and answers. Wednesday, cyclists applauded the police work, but some said they were disappointed a more severe charge was not applied.
In a document filed by the Harris County District Attorney's Office, Margaret Renee Mayer, 35, is accused of intentionally not stopping her car after hitting Norman, who was riding home at about 10:20 p.m. from Whole Foods Market in Montrose.
Norman, 24, was gravely injured but alive when she was found sprawled on the curb along Waugh and at the base of a bike lane sign. She died days later at a Houston hospital.
With the charge, authorities do not contend Mayer broke the law by hitting Norman, but by failing to stop afterward and render aid.
Mayer has a prior conviction in 2002 for drunken driving. The latest charge is a felony and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison because it involved a death.
Mayor Annise Parker, who after Norman's death called for better safety awareness by drivers and cyclists, called the tragedy a senseless loss of life and praised police.
"There was a suspect identified early on and we have been confident from the beginning this case would be solved," Parker said in a statement. "It may have seemed as if it was taking longer than it should have. Detectives wanted to nail down all the forensic evidence to to avoid issues with prosecution."
Authorities allege in the affidavit they have built a case against Mayer in part with the statements of people who spoke with her before and after the crash.
Investigators also took DNA swabs from her car, according to the affidavit, but it does not note the results of any testing.
A neighbor supposedly told authorities that the morning after the crash that Mayer's car was damaged and that there was a piece of denim material stuck to it.
It is unclear whether Norman was riding in the middle of Waugh or in the bike lane, as well as how well her bike may have been lighted.
The affidavit signed by an assistant district attorney describes how the investigation of Norman's death unfolded behind the scenes as cyclists held public gatherings in which they mourned Norman's death and called on police to do more to find whoever hit her.
Anonymous tips to Crime Stoppers led authorities to a woman who said she had been drinking with Mayer the night of the accident, but left her at a bar.
She got a call from Mayer the next day.
"The defendant contacted her, and told her that she was very intoxicated the previous night and that she had gotten lost somewhere on Waugh Drive," the affidavit notes, "... defendant told her that she thought she hit someone because her window was shatter (sic), but she could not remember what happened."
Among the other evidence authorities said they have compiled is a recording of a telephone conversation three days after the crash between Mayer's brother and her mother while he was in the Harris County jail on unrelated charges.
"They can be heard talking about the crash," according to the affidavit. "In the calls, they referenced the defendant as 'Auntie M' and that she wrecked her car while she was drunk and hit a bike."
No additional charges
Cyclists questioned why more charges were not filed.
"She should also be charged with failure to comply with the safe passing ordinance," said Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, who also wondered why a manslaughter charge wasn't applied.
Authorities have said such criminal cases are difficult to win in court because there are often no witnesses, and typically both the motorists and the cyclist are partially at fault.
Cyclists countered penalties and enforcement need to be clear to convince people to drive and ride safely.
"Fatalities happen when people fail to comply with laws, whether it is speeding, DUI, or running a red light, the consequences are always greater for cyclists than they are for motorists," Payne said. "Vulnerability is the reason why we have increased penalties for speeding in construction zones, or passing too close to a police officer on the side of the road."
Police have said there were no witnesses to the crash that killed Norman.
It is rare in Houston for motorists to be charged with crimes in connection with deaths of cyclists, which in the past has spurred cyclists to accuse officials of treating bicycle accidents as a low priority, and bike and pedestrian safety as second-class to free-flowing vehicle traffic.
A Houston Chronicle review going back to 2009 showed that prior to Mayer, just four motorists were charged out of 23 car crashes in which cyclists were killed.
In three of those cases the defendants were not sent to prison.
Charges remain pending in the fourth case in which a law school student is accused of failing to stop after fatally hitting a man riding a bicycle in the early morning hours on Richmond in October.
Houston's cycling community united behind a push for better biking safety following Norman's death, with many riders detailing their own close calls and concerns to city officials.
Their goal, they said, was to increase awareness among drivers and cyclists, and press for more attention from state and local officials.
"Penalties need to be tougher for collisions with cyclists and pedestrians," Payne said. "We don't have a culture of respect for these users. ... Our society has the capacity to manage this issue, we simply need civic leaders to step up and set the tone."
City officials, notably Parker, have stressed everyone needs to respect the rights of others on the road. Parker last month blamed impaired and distracted drivers and cyclists riding at night without proper lights as the causes of most fatal crashes.
Many riders believe lax enforcement of safety laws and poor street design puts them in harm's way and is leading to some of the wrecks.
A check of municipal court records conducted at the request of the Chronicle found that not one citation had been issued to a motorist during the first six months of a new ordinance, which began in May and required cars to stay at least three feet from bikes and pedestrians, and trucks six feet away.
"It used to be the people who had ridden smartly were not getting hit," rider Dan Morgan told the city council last week. "They were not part of the statistics, they are part of the statistics now."
Drivers and some cyclists, meanwhile, counter that riders need to clean up their act as well.
Cyclists running red lights is a frequent complaint in some neighborhoods, where motorists said the call for greater safety is undermined by the often aggressive pose some riders strike when they hit the streets.
"I guarantee you I am not going to run a red light in my car, because I'm afraid I'll get hit," Montrose resident Tom Clementine said. "But these guys will just fly by, not a care in the world."
Cyclists acknowledge their own situational awareness and decisions can improve safety. Many rides are organized specifically so riders are in groups, as opposed to riding alone, because there is safety in numbers. Within the cycling community, riders often police themselves for proper equipment like helmets and nighttime lights.
"I have to admit I have ridden without lights and recently I have seen how important it is and so I got lights," said Hecort Garcia, a local cyclist active in some of the city's group rides, including the controversial Critical Mass rides at the end of each month. "We definitely need to be more aware and ride safe at night."
Police are working on an educational campaign for cyclists and drivers, and talking to local cyclists about other programs.
Council members meanwhile are debating other changes, such as registration for bicycles in the city to encourage not only better safety awareness, but also to raise money for bike infrastructure improvements.
Though the city is spending millions on new trails and bayou improvements – many that benefit cyclists via off-street routes – investment in street improvements for cyclists has lagged.
Many of the bike lane lines painted on city streets are faded, and they hug gutters that can be littered with debris. Those deficient facilities play a role in overall bike safety because it forces cyclists who otherwise would stay as far right as possible further into the interior of the street.
"Have you been to where this accident happened," Garcia said, referring to Norman's fatal crash. "It is jacked up right there, the street is crooked.