It’s hard to believe it’s been a full year.
Yes, all traffic deaths are tragic.
But some seem more troubling than others, haunting the edges of memory until something — an anniversary, a ghost bike, a news story — brings it back full force. And you’re struck once again by the incredible waste of it all.
A life taken for no reason.
Other than a driver’s carelessness and — alleged — criminal behavior.
A 21-year old bike shop worker taking the long way to work early on a Sunday morning, run down from behind by an 18-year old girl accused of having meth in her system from the night before.
It was exactly one year ago today that Joseph Robinson was killed by a hit-and-run driver while riding in a bike lane on Santiago Canyon Road in Orange while on his way to Jax Bicycles in Irvine. Sommer Gonzales was charged with the crime after being arrested in a parking lot not far away on Santa Margarita Parkway, reportedly while hiding evidence in a friend’s car.
It was thanks to an off-duty firefighter that Robinson was discovered off the side of the road, on the verge of death. And that a police officer had the information he needed to spot Gonzales’ car and make an arrest.
OC Battalion Chief Mark Stone was on his way to work when he spotted the badly damaged car traveling in the opposite direction, and began looking for what — or who — the car had struck. The only visible sign of the crash was a tumbleweed smashed against a guardrail, and a single bike shoe resting on the road.
Evidently, I’m not the only one who’s been haunted by Robinson’s needless death.
A memorial ride was held in Irvine this morning; hundreds of riders were expected to participate, escorted to the site of his ghost bike by Irvine police and CHP officers.
Meanwhile, Gonzales faces felony charges for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while intoxicated, driving under the influence of drugs causing bodily injury, hit-and-run causing death and possession of a controlled substance.
In addition, she’s charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, with sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury and fleeing the scene of a crime, according to the MyNewsLA website.
The site reports she could spend over 15 years in state prison if convicted on the felony charges, with an additional six months in county for the misdemeanor count.
Our anonymous South Bay correspondent was in the courtroom recently for the preliminary hearing for Sommer Gonzales.
The preliminary held Wednesday, January 21st, was lengthy and at one point during some protracted questioning by the defense, the judge interrupted to remind him that the purpose of the prelim is to present only the most germane facts.
And the facts appear to be these:
Sommer Nicole Gonzales had been hanging out at a private residence in Anaheim on Saturday night. About 3 am on the morning in question, she allegedly smoked meth. A couple hours later, she began her drive to visit a 24-year-old gentleman friend in South County, taking a route familiar to her. Her undamaged vehicle is seen on the video surveillance of a Villa Park 76 Station shortly before she reached Santiago Canyon Road. At 6:47 am she texted a reply to the persistent gentleman friend, saying she was going through Santiago Canyon.
At approximately 6:55 am, she left a frantic message on another friend’s mom’s voicemail, stating that she had “hit something” and needed help. (The mom, for the record, disapproves of her son’s acquaintanceship with Gonzales, and immediately deleted the message.)
Although video surveillance from the gated entrance of the nearby Loma Ridge Emergency Operations Center didn’t capture the impact that flung Joey’s body 200 feet through the air, it shows that Gonzales stopped and exited her damaged vehicle. She did not walk back towards the site of the collision. Instead, twenty-five seconds later, she got back in the driver’s seat and continued driving southbound on Santiago.
OCFA Battilion Chief Marc Stone, commuting northbound, noticed the smashed hood and shattered windshield of Gonzales’ car as it passed him by the south entrance of Irvine Lake. The magnitude of the damage to her windshield initially, very briefly, made him think the car had struck a deer, but his intuition instantly put him on alert. Three miles up the road, he spotted crunched-up tumbleweeds and a lone bike shoe nearby. The same surveillance video shows his truck slow and flip a U-turn. Off camera, he found Joey’s body and dialed 911. Just up the hill, the dispatchers at the Loma Ridge Facility, which houses the county’s emergency communications bureau, relayed the description of the damaged maroon Toyota to law enforcement.
A sharp-eyed Sheriff’s deputy located the suspect’s vehicle, along with the suspect and her 24-year-old gentleman friend, in a parking lot. She had burn marks on her lips and paraphernalia in her purse. She had all sorts of nystagmus and was uncooperative with officers who attempted to administer a field sobriety test. After very few questions, she was taken into custody.
The judge listened to both sides impassively, examining all the exhibits and asking pertinent questions. Throughout the hearing, he was observant, neutral and unreadable, even during the defense’s closing arguments that dropped jaws in the audience.
The defense, possibly sensing the hopelessness of requesting a dismissal of charges, contended that Gonzales’ behavior that night did not meet the definition of gross negligence. The judge disagreed, and stated several reasons to support his opinion: She was high. She was texting. She was on a road familiar to her as one popular with cyclists. She, for whatever reason, maneuvered her vehicle straight into a marked, eight-foot wide bike lane. She failed to investigate the cause of the damage to her vehicle. Fifteen miles away from the scene, she parked her car head-in so that the damage would not be so visible to passers-by. She called pretty much everybody except 911. She made conflicting statements to law enforcement. Her “credibility,” concluded the judge, “is a question for the jury to decide.”
And, despite his calmly expressed finding that the evidence in the case clearly merits a more thorough examination by trial, there was no mistaking his own incredulity at the defense’s claims. I’m fairly sure everyone else in the courtroom (with the exception of Gonzales and her lawyer) wanted to yell “YESSS!” and add a fist pump for good measure.
She goes on to offer her personal take on the case:
Gonzales is an idiot for not taking whatever lenient plea deal she was offered, because it’s off the table now. Let alone for not learning anything about how to manage her addiction during three (count ’em, three) stints in rehab as a minor.
And it’s disgusting that her gentleman friend hasn’t been charged as an accessory after the fact. He was helping her remove her possessions from her damaged vehicle when the two were discovered. He’s also the brilliant mind who suggested that she reposition her vehicle so that the damage would be less noticeable, and “accidentally” deleted the texts he sent and received that morning (it took a subpoena to his carrier, but the DA has them all).
Meanwhile, Orange County traffic engineers still think 55 mph is an acceptable speed on a downhill stretch with a blind vertical curve. And the tower visible off in the distance from where Joey was killed, the one that looks like a steeple?
It belongs to the county’s 911 dispatch center.
Two lives were destroyed that morning; two families shattered and countless friends shaken.
Sommer Gonzales may have a chance to rebuild hers once she finally gets out of prison — assuming she’s convicted, of course.
Joseph Robinson will never get that chance.