Bicyclists’ deaths draw eyes to roads, justice
Teenager Miguel Marcial pedaled his bike along a narrow, dark stretch of Richmond Avenue early one morning last July, following closely behind his older brother. The immigrant dishwashers had worked the late shift and were both biking to a nearby pharmacy to buy toilet paper.
Only a few feet from the drug store's parking lot, a brand-new BMW driven by a law student, Steven Moritz, who had just left the Estate Lounge, smacked 17-year-old Marcial from behind and launched him head-long into an oak tree.
The vehicle didn't stop, according to police. It dragged Marcial's orange and white bike beneath it for six blocks before disappearing into the humid summer gloom.
"If I had not pulled in, we would both be dead," Miguel's brother Palemon recalled hauntingly last week.
Marcial was one of at least 23 bike riders killed on Houston streets in the past five years, according to police and safety reports, as well as court and medical records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle. But only four times in five years have drivers been charged with a crime after fatally hitting a cyclist.
The tally comes as tensions have increased in Houston's cycling community, with two bike riders killed in recent weeks in unsolved hit-and-run crashes.
Outspoken cyclists contend the city hasn't created enough clean, safe bike lanes. They also believe police aren't ticketing cars for coming too close to riders or doing enough to find people who run them down.
Fred Zapalac, co-owner of Blue Line Bike Lab bike shops and a cycling community advocate, said anger is simmering over a lack of accountability.
"If we are getting run down, and there are no consequences for the driver's actions then our lives have about as much value as a stray animal," Zapalac said.
A review of municipal court records conducted at the Chronicle's request found that no citations were issued within the first six months a city ordinance went into effect in May. It requires that cars stay at least 3 feet from cyclists and pedestrians, and trucks 6 feet away.
Some motorists, however, counter that certain cyclists think they own the roads and openly defy traffic laws.
City Council Member Ed Gonzalez, who has been an advocate for cycling issues, said more should be done to protect and educate riders, as well as motorists, and train police on enforcing the 3-feet ordinance.
"We are a very car-centric city," he said. "We are very dependent on the automobiles, and we don't have a very robust mass transit system. There are some major shifts that need to occur."
Blend of bad choices
Crashes that claimed the lives of riders over the past five years are often a blend of bad choices by bike riders and motorists.
Three drivers were convicted after pleading guilty in agreements that include deferred adjudication - a form of probation that enables them to have their criminal records cleaned if they stay out of trouble.
One was for causing an accident with a death, another for criminally negligent homicide, and a third for failing to stop at the scene.
Moritz, a student at South Texas College of Law, was eventually arrested and faces up to 10 years in prison if he is convicted of failing to stop and render aid. Marcial's death was typical among fallen cyclists and reflects a reality about many people who ride bikes in this city.
He was riding for transportation, not exercise. He was in the street, not on a bike path.
Marcial and his brother had recently gotten off work. Like many undocumented workers, they didn't have cars or driver's licenses, so they rode bikes.
But his death also stands out.
There were witnesses and charges were filed, although authorities didn't know about Moritz until more than a week after the incident when a lawyer for the car's owner called police.
He is not accused of breaking the law by killing Marcial, but by not stopping afterward and calling for help. Moritz's lawyer, J. Gordon Dees, declined comment.
The deaths cross the spectrum of circumstance, from cyclists who were riding on sidewalks to others who tried to roll across freeways.
Mohammad Qureshi, then 19, was driving along the Southwest Freeway in 2010, when he bolted across four lanes of the highway to make the Hillcroft exit.
He lost control of His Honda Accord and hit a cyclist riding on the sidewalk of the service drive.
A year later, he pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in the death of Narcotulio "Benjamin" Tzul as part of an agreement that requires him to serve 45 days in jail in five-day chunks: nine days each year for five years, through 2015.
In 2010, Carmenza Arreaga, then 24, pleaded guilty to a charge of "accident involving death" of Paul Miller and was required to pay $18,000 in restitution to the bike rider's family.
She hit Miller in the early morning hours along the Loop 610 feeder road and drove away, leaving behind pieces of the front bumper of her Honda Civic. An anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers led to her arrest.
Jonathan Turner pleaded guilty in 2010 to failing to stop and render assistance after the death of Anthony Jones, who was trying to cross Interstate 45 at 10:15 p.m. Turner was given 30 days in jail and ordered to pay $5,199 in restitution.
A sheriff's deputy caught him at a gas station trying to pull a mangled bicycle out from under his Chevy Tahoe.
Harris County prosecutor Alison Baimbridge said it is not unusual for defendants to serve sentences in segments on the anniversary of a victim's death to repeatedly remind them they killed someone and didn't go to prison.
"There is no sentence that you can give anybody that would actually justify losing somebody's life," she said. "You can't do that, you can't bring them back. You have to look at the defendant's life, the circumstances and any potential issues in the case."
Despite criticism from some cyclists who contend authorities treat biker deaths as less than a priority, Baimbridge said the cases are investigated as thoroughly as the deaths of motorists or pedestrians.
"Their lives are just as valuable as anyone else's," she said.
She said many cases in which bikers have been killed in car crashes are especially challenging because they often involve both the motorist and the cyclist doing something wrong.
"It is kind of a double-fault situation," she said of cases such as when motorists should have steered clear of a cyclist, but the cyclist was crossing the street inappropriately or not having reflectors or lights.
Among the toughest cases are hit and runs where no one saw the incident, she said. "It is really frustrating," she said. "Their families deserve to know what happened, if nothing else. It is horrible.
In the two hit-and-run crashes in recent weeks there have been no arrests.
Nabor Rosas, 40, was found in the bayou in mid-January after he was hit riding over a bridge on Harrisburg at night on the way home and landed in the water.
Chelsea Norman, 24, was killed in the Montrose neighborhood in early December as she rode home from her job at Whole Foods, also at night.
Each time a bike rider's death makes the news it hits hard for Xenia Sanchez. Her daughter, Leslie Roman, 6, was riding her bike in 2009 in her apartment complex parking lot when she was hit and killed by a silver PT Cruiser that has never been found.
"It comes back," she said at a table beneath three photos of Leslie that were hung on the wall as part of a shrine of sorts, along with her daughter's Barbie doll perched on a shelf beneath them.
"I know exactly how his or her mom is feeling. It is painful to see other people go through what we went through."
Leslie's father, Leonardo Roman, who ran into the parking lot and picked up his daughter, who was still barely alive, found some peace in that though her body was badly battered, she was not crushed.
"It could have been so much worse," he said quietly.
Houston Police Sgt. Carlos Miller, of the vehicular crimes division, said there are many reasons why motorists flee after hitting a bike rider.
"A lot of times they are frantic over what just happened," he said, noting that they can be motivated to drive away by everything from fear, even if they have done nothing wrong, to wanting to hide the tracks of other criminality.
Among the others to die was Cruz Riojas, 67, who worked in sculpture repair. He was riding back to work in 2011 from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
He had been on the sidewalk on Sawyer Street, just outside the Heights neighborhood, but was hit as he tried to cross an intersection.
The car's driver, Ricardo Abonce, 30, said he was coming back from a Target and drove through the intersection with a green light. Riojas came over the car's hood and hit the windshield.
It was a moment of "silent shock" as the glass shattered, then as he got out of the car and other motorists streamed by honking at him.
"I feel bad because he didn't make it," Abonce said. "I can't have that over me all the time."
Police found that Riojas was at fault for crossing an intersection when he had the red light. No charges were filed against Abonce.
Sport rider killed
One of the few sport riders to be killed was Jonathan Lennard. The 47-year-old aerospace engineer, known for being meticulous, had once traveled to Europe to see the Tour de France and cycled across that continent.
He was killed last August, on Memorial, where it cuts through Memorial Park, after being struck by a 19-year-old motorist.
The driver told police that he had the green light and swerved to avoid Lennard. Police found that Lennard was at fault.
But Kevin Hood, a lawyer who is a cyclist and runner, said he was watching Lennard and believes the driver was not paying attention and ran a red light.
Hood said he will never forget what he saw. "It is terrifying. You cannot un-see that stuff."
Back where Marcial lived, a few blocks from where there are now flowers and a cross rising from the dirt beneath the tree where he landed, his family waits for answers.
They have adapted to Houston, but some struggle with English and even Spanish, as they are from a rural region of Mexico where an indigenous language is spoken.
Marcial had been in Houston three weeks. He was proud of his first paycheck and planned to save enough to one day go back home and buy a house.
Family in Houston who had not seen him since he was very young was just getting to know him. The brothers went to the store so they would be ready for a party at their apartment later that Sunday.
They decided to ride in the street because the sidewalk was a minefield of cracks, telephone poles and trees. The road was empty.
"There was no noise," Marcial's brother recalled, "not even any cars."