Evil on trial: testimony begins in the Mandeville Canyon case

The defense strategy is starting to come in focus.

Based on his cross examination, Peter Swarth, attorney for Dr. Christopher Thompson, intends to paint a picture of a canyon plagued by angry, out of control cyclists. And portray the Good Doctor as their unfortunate, and innocent, victim — three times, no less.

That message is reinforced by the noticeable presence of two large bodyguards in the courtroom, suggesting that Thompson is the one who is in danger from cyclists, rather than the other way around.

As both the Times and VeloNews reported, testimony began with Christian Stoehr, one of the two cyclists seriously injured on the 4th of July last year when the Good Doctor pulled in front of them and slammed on his brakes.

Stoehr described how he hit the back of Thompson’s car when the doctor cut in front of them and slammed on his brakes, rolling over the top of the car and falling into the street. But when he had trouble explaining exactly how that occurred, Swarth suggested that maybe he simply fell over.

You know, ‘cause experienced cyclists do that a lot.

According to cyclist/attorney DJwheels, the other rider, Ron Peterson, went into more detail, describing how they had passed a slower rider shortly before they heard a car approach from behind. When Stoehr called out “Car back!,” Peterson responded by taking single file position in front.

The driver, later identified as a Thompson, yelled out “Ride single file;” Peterson responded with “Fuck you!” He said Thompson then cut over and braked to a stop about five feet in front of them. Because of their downhill speed, a collision was unavoidable; after striking the car, Peterson flew forward into the car’s rear windshield.

“My face did that,” he said, pointing to a large hole in the glass in a photo of the scene. “And that’s my blood.”

Under cross examination, Peterson admitted that after extricating himself from the glass, he told Thompson to “Get the fuck away from me,” adding “I’m going to fuck you up!”

“I said it,” Peterson admitted. “I’m not proud.”

That exchange is important, both because it points to the anger Swarth suggests, as well as supporting the defense claim that Thompson never refused to help the cyclists, as has been reported, but rather, it was the cyclists who refused his aid.

Swarth continued to pressure Peterson, accusing him of anger before the collision, and still being furious and desperate for revenge. Peterson calmly insisted that he was angry at first, “but it’s been awhile.” He continued by saying “I just want justice. That’s why I’m here.”

Deputy District Attorney Mary Stone then called LAPD Traffic Accident Investigator Robert Rodriguez.

Rodriguez testified that shortly after arriving, he took a statement from the Good Doctor, who said the cyclists were riding “three abreast,” blocking the roadway. VeloNews quotes him as saying “They flipped me off. I stopped in front of them. I wanted to teach them a lesson. I’m tired of them.”

Rodriguez, a veteran officer and former Marine, said that meant this needed to be investigated as an assault with a deadly weapon, rather than a traffic accident. He immediately stopped his investigation and called for backup.

While he waited for help to arrive, Rodriguez took measurements of the crime scene — including one showing the roadway was 20 feet wide at that point.

Again, this could prove important, since standard lane width in California is 12 feet; section 21202 of the California Vehicle Code allows cyclists to take the lane if it’s “too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.” A substandard lane width would justify taking a position within the lane, rather than hugging the curb to the right.

Stone played a recording of Thompson speaking with the 911 operator. The court could clearly hear him tell the injured cyclists to get their bikes out of the road; he told the operator they weren’t seriously injured, “But they’ll tell you that.”

Swarth suggested that to an ER doctor such as Thompson, “serious” means something different than it does to a layman — setting up an argument to combat the doctor’s lack of remorse. However, considering that he hadn’t examined either victim, it may be hard to support a medical determination.

The next witness was another Mandeville resident, Dr. Bruce Rogen, who was returning home with his family when they came upon the crime scene. He was the first person to offer medical care to the cyclists, saying it was “primitive” due to the lack of medical equipment. Peterson was still bleeding profusely, so he took off his own shirt to use as a bandage to staunch the bleeding.

It was at about that point when the trial paused because one of the jurors felt faint — attributing it to her squeamishness around blood. Somehow, the descriptions of blood got to her, even though the previous day’s bloody photos hadn’t.

When testimony continued, Swarth pressed Rogen on whether Thompson had offered assistance. After repeated questioning, Rogen recalled Thompson saying the cyclists had refused his help; however, he did not remember Thompson attempting to assist him or offer advice.

Geoffrey Keyes, M.D. took the stand next. President of both the L.A. and California Society of Plastic Surgeons, he described the surgery he performed on Peterson, citing significant internal and external injuries to the nose, which required both nasal and septal reconstruction.

The day’s final witness was Patrick Watson of Team Helens, who recalled a similar experience in March, 2008, with a car and license plate number matching that of the Good Doctor’s.

According to Watson, Thompson ran him off the road, forcing him to bunny hop over a curb onto the lawn of a house. His riding partner, Josh Crosby, was forced onto the opposite side of the road; Crosby responded by yelling at Thompson and striking the side of his car.

Meanwhile, Watson hopped back onto the roadway, finding himself one again in front of Thompson’s car; the car charged towards him — forcing him to bunny hop onto the yard once again — before swerving off and driving away.

Watson said Crosby’s punch may have left a dent in Thompson’s Lexus, which they thought could be used as evidence in a hit-and-run charge. Swarth jumped on that, accusing Watson of threatening to file a false police report, since it was Crosby who struck Thompson’s car, rather than the other way around. However, he was forced to back down when Watson said that the police had told him that.

Then again, Swarth was also forced to back down when Judge Scott Millington sternly reprimanded him for repeatedly interrupting witnesses, as well as the judge himself.

According to VeloNews, there was a third, eerily similar incident in Mandeville Canyon that preceded the other two. In the winter of 2008, Patrick Early narrowly escaped injury when a car resembling Thompson’s buzzed his bike and the driver yelled “Get off the road!” Like the riders in this case, he responded by yelling back “Fuck you!,” only to have the driver cut in front of him and slam on the brakes; fortunately, he was riding uphill, so he was able to stop in time to avoid a collision.

Watson’s testimony continues today, followed by Josh Crosby and additional police witnesses; Friday’s witness list includes medical experts, as well as possible testimony from an expert witness about information downloaded from Watson’s Garmin.

“I hope Crosby is composed,” DJwheels said, “because it’s clear that Swarth is going to go after him.”

Defense testimony may begin on Friday or Monday, though Swarth has expressed concern about the availability of witnesses on the first part of the week. Closing arguments are expected on or about October 28.

I’ve done my best to confirm all the names in this story; however, if I have misspelled or gotten anyone’s name or title wrong, let me know and I will be happy to correct it. For more information, see the Times coverage of opening testimony, and the excellent coverage from VeloNews, here and here, as well as today’s story on Streetsblog L.A.

25 comments

  1. [...] DJ Wheels, an attorney who happens to be a bicycle rider, has been updating the folks at Midnight Ridazz on the ongoing case of the "Road Rage Doctor" as it is heard at the LAX Courthouse.  Wheels was gracious enough to summarize his posts on Monday and Tuesday's hearings.  If you can't get enough Dr. Road Rage, Ted Rogers has more at Biking In L.A.: [...]

  2. TheTricksterNZ says:

    I wonder how many problems the lawyer is going to run into with the jury by being rudus interruptus.

  3. Jim Gallo says:

    As a triathlete for nearly 20 years and a trial lawyer for 32, who suffered a hit and run one year before this incident, I think I understand all of the issues presented. It looks to me like the DA is doing all the right things in this case.

  4. Dave Lewis says:

    I have ridden Mandeville many times and am curious about the absence of one aspect of this case. Each time I have decended upper Mandeville my speedometer has indicated that I was riding at or above the posted speed limit without having to pedel. If the two guys were also traveling at the posted speed limit, they were fully entitled to take the whole lane, and the doctor was not leagally entitled to break the posted speed limit in order to pass. Speeding is still an offense is it not?

    As a matter of law the doctor cannot claim that he was being obstructed if the guys were at or close to the posted speed limit nor were the guys obliged to yeild the lane. The severity of the crash damage indicates that neither of the guys was traveling slow.

    Has this issue been raised at trial?

    • Bryan says:

      Dave,

      They had an accident specialist analyze the GPS systems that the cyclists had on board and concluded that they were in fact doing the speed limit. As such, 2 abreast is fine, and the doctor wasn’t being impeded, legally.

  5. Jim Gallo says:

    Dave:
    I agree with you that the cyclists were likely going the speed limit and that would be relevant to the driver’s right to pass them. I am sure the issue of the speed of all vehicles will be addressed fully at the trial because it is usually a major determinant.
    Your point is well taken and non-cyclists might assume that a bike just can’t go that fast. That’s the lawyer’s job to make sure those facts come out.
    Jim Gallo

    • Dave Lewis says:

      Jim;
      Thanks for the response. Just seems to me that once it is established that “Dr Death” had no right to pass, most of his defense crumbles as he was in the wrong from the getgo.

      • bikinginla says:

        It’s an interesting question. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t come up yet in the trial, but I’ll ask DJwheels next time I talk to him.

        I can tell you that in the earlier incident with Watson and Crosby, their speed was estimated at 29 – 30 mph, while a document from the local homeowners group shows the speed limit as 30 mph on the main canyon road. So there is reason to believe that Thompson had to be speeding in order to catch up to, let alone pass, the cyclists.

  6. [...] drivers only get charged for making an improper turn if they end up hitting a police officer. And Biking in LA reports on the opening testimony in a particularly frightening vehicular assault [...]

  7. Thanks for the in-depth coverage. I’ve been trying to follow this case closely. I keep reading about how Swarth is interrupting the judge and the witnesses; why hasn’t he been cited for contempt yet? It seems the judge just keeps warning him and there are no consequences. Oh wait, but that’s how it goes right? The guys with the cars just get warnings when they run over cyclists.

  8. pgraff99 says:

    I’m also following this case closely, but not because I’m really focused on which side wins. Yes, the cyclist probably deserves justice (I too am a cyclist), but really — both sides are losing and the stalemate between cyclists and motorists continues and this publicity just makes it worse. Both sides will return to their camps as angry as ever. We’ve got to start fixing this. It’s not rocket science. http://www.politeandright.org

    • Dave Lewis says:

      I disagree. The cyclist involved were and are law abiding citizens execising their right to use a public road which they helped pay for with their taxes. Somehow society at large convieniently forgets this fact. It is interesting to review the california vevicle code.
      To whit:
      21200. (a) Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, including, but not limited to, provisions concerning driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs, and by Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000), Section 27400, Division 16.7 (commencing with Section 39000), Division 17 (commencing with Section 40000.1), and Division 18 (commencing with Section 42000), except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.

    • Dave Lewis says:

      Additionally the following burden is placed upon every driver of every vehicle;

      21750. The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated.

    • bikinginla says:

      I agree there is a lot cyclists and drivers can do to get along better on the roads, and a little common courtesy goes a long way. However, there is a huge difference making a rude gesture or hurling an insult, and using your vehicle as a deadly weapon to intimidate, injure, maim or kill another human being. It’s hard enough to get police to take such incidents against cyclists seriously; if they can’t get a conviction in this case, in which the driver admitted intentionally causing a collision “to teach them a lesson,” you might as well declare open season on bicyclists.

  9. Mitch says:

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to yell “fuck you” at a passing motorist, no matter what he says to you.
    In my experience, a cheery wave (using all the fingers on your hand, not just one…) drives them just as crazy, and it looks better in court.

    • bikinginla says:

      Can’t argue with that. And I’ve learned the hard way that it’s never a good idea to flip off the driver behind you.

  10. Spiro says:

    Seriously, is this guy still a doctor? How can we have a sub-human like this working in an emergency room? And, naturally, he has no remorse when, potentially, he could have killed these riders at this speed. If anyone knows the hospital he works at, I’d like to write to their administrators and immediately have this Chris Thompson’s license permanently removed. With his terrible temper and arrogance, I’m sure he’s “accidently” killed many incoming patients (especially bikers). Time to clean out this kind of scum.

  11. [...] And that brings us to this recent exchange of comments in last week’s discussion of the Mandeville Canyon case. [...]

  12. Velocentric says:

    It doesn’t matter what cyclists do or don’t do. Many drivers are simply enraged that something might impede their right to go as fast as possible on their journey. From my bike, I’ve seen a grown man scream and pound his dashboard into pieces because he didn’t make the stop light. My kids ride on these roads, God help us all.

  13. Jim Gallo says:

    I know it sounds a little pedestrian, but as a cyclist, lawyer and layman, it looks like this is unfolding in a predictable way. Keep up the feedback and let’s all try to learn from this. There is a reason why we have public trials in our system.

    • Dave Lewis says:

      Jim;
      As a layman, I am trying to learn exactly what the rules are. All of us beleive, wrongly most of the time, that we know. Your comment about “predictably” leaves me puzzeled and curious. Can you please elaberate, from a lawyers prespective, as to what is to come?

  14. Jim Gallo says:

    Hi Dave:
    Most of this is not rocket science, yet in every trial lawyers for both sides have to choose how and when to put on their evidence. Not being there, I can’t know all of the nuances and things change in ways that only a person in the thick of it can see. I think that the prosecution is trying the case the way I would in both direct testimony and in redirect. Conversely, if you think about it, the defense is doing what it can with what we think are the facts. I don’t know the lawyers personally but they are very likely all experienced trial lawyers. Usually, in a trial, a lawyer has all of the obvious facts and evidence in his/her file. But the timing and the choice of when and how they are presented is oftentimes a function of how the lawyer perceives the case and what the lawyer believes will be most persuasive. It’s sort of like someone playing chess with a computer but, trust me, the lawyers are taking this very seriously and it is not a game. I hope this some consolation to you. I will say that in many cases that get a lot of attention, I have thought “OMG what a bad job they are doing.” Not in this case from what I have read. And I think justice will be done.

  15. David Underwood says:

    I rode Mandeville many times until 2004 when I moved to Sacramento. I easily was able to hit 30+ mph and still had cars passing me. Juat ask any of the Thursday riders from the South Bay Wheelmen.

    Here in the north we occasionally get buzzed by young testosterone male types in pickups, but in general riding is pretty good. Lots of back roads with light traffic, and if you want hills, we’ve got hills.

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