Arrest made in hit-and-run that killed Houston cyclist
The same December day that a 24-year-old Whole Foods wine expert died of injuries she suffered in a hit-and-run bicycle crash, Harris County jailers recorded a chilling phone conversation between an inmate and his mother.
"They referenced the defendant as 'Auntie M' and that she wrecked her car while she was drunk and hit a bike," according to a court affidavit filed Wednesday. "They also stated that she did not stop."
Auntie M was Margaret R. Mayer, police say, and the 35-year-old is now charged with fleeing the scene of an accident when she returned home from a night of drinking with a shattered windshield and bits of clothing stuck to her tan pickup.
The same day the jailhouse talk was taped, Mayer had been named a suspect by a police tipster who claimed her friend had confessed to drinking heavily and possibly hitting someone on the night of the Dec. 1 crash that killed Chelsea Norman.
The woman, who called Crime Stoppers four days after the collision, said she had left Mayer in a bar and that the next day Mayer told her she'd gotten lost somewhere on Waugh and woke up to find her windshield shattered. Mayer told her she could not remember what happened, the caller said.
With that information, a Houston police officer went to Mayer's home, where he says he saw her damaged truck and that she admitted to him that she had been in the area where the crash occurred, but remembered only vaguely how she got home.
A neighbor told police that Mayer got home about 11 p.m. that night - 30 minutes after Norman was hit - and that her truck was smashed up and had some denim stuck to it.
Soon after, investigators were following leads and tips that led them to a girlfriend of Mayer's brother. He was in jail at the time on unrelated charges.
The woman told police that she was certain Mayer's mother knew about the crash.
With that detail, Alison Baimbridge, who oversees hit-and-run investigations for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, put in a request to hear the taped jailhouse conversations between the brother and mother in the days after the fatal collision.
Could get 20 years
Mayer is scheduled to appear in state court Thursday, where she will be formally charged with not stopping to render aid.
"When you leave a crime scene as the defendant did in this case, we do not know how quickly she would have been able to get first responders out there to help save Chelsea's life," prosecutor Janna Oswald said. "When somebody causes the crash like she did that night, whether it was because she was intoxicated or it just really was a crash that occurred by accident or what not, those moments are important."
If convicted, Mayer faces up to 20 years in prison, a penalty that recently doubled after changes by the Texas Legislature.
She has a previous conviction for drunken driving, and could not be reached for comment.
Norman's ride home that quiet Sunday night was supposed to take five minutes. She had done it many times.
Passer-by Allison Eck didn't see the accident, but saw the young woman crumpled on the curb near the bike lane on Waugh. Eck said she leapt from her car and held Norman's hand until help arrived. She rode in the ambulance with Norman to a nearby hospital and refused to let the young woman who she'd never met die alone.
"I could not stop kissing her cheek and constantly begging for her to squeeze my hand if she could feel me or hear me, and praying that she would somehow make it out of this," Eck recalled.
Norman would hold on for four days before succumbing to her injuries.
In the days following the crash, hundreds of friends and neighbors took to the streets of Montrose with candles and bicycles to honor Norman and pressure police to catch her killer.
Emotions were high, but with no witnesses, authorities were faced with trying to solve an especially tough crime.
Public's help crucial
Baimbridge said hit-and-run cases are hard to win in court, and depend greatly on the public coming forward to share information.
"We always try to urge everybody - no matter how insignificant they think what they saw or heard is - to report it," she said. "Because even though they don't think it is important, we may have all the other pieces and this was just the piece that we needed."
A Houston Chronicle review of the deaths of 23 bike riders killed in car crashes in this city since 2009 shows that Mayer is just the fifth motorist charged with a crime.
In three of those cases, the drivers pleaded guilty and got deferred adjudication, a form of probation which will clean their criminal records of the incidents if they stay out of trouble. A fourth case, involving a law student who hit a man riding on Richmond in the early-morning darkness in July, has yet to be resolved.
Mayor Annise Parker, who after Norman's death called for better safety awareness by drivers and cyclists, called the tragedy senseless and praised police for Mayer's arrest.
"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 avoid issues with prosecution."
In the wake of Mayer's arrest, the cycling community questioned why additional 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.
New law, no citations
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 3 feet from bikes and pedestrians, and trucks to stay 6 feet away.
Payne said penalties and enforcement must be clear to persuade people to drive and ride safely.
"Fatalities happen when people fail to comply with laws," he said. "Whether it is speeding, DUI, or running a red light, the consequences are always greater for cyclists than they are for motorists."