New Mission News * January 8, 2001

Furor over cyclist's killing
Road rage is blamed for the death of Chris Robertson

By Joe Donohoe
New Mission News

On the night of November 17th, Chris Robertson, a former bike messenger and a worker at the Rainbow Foods Cooperative, was killed when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig ran over him during a bicycle funeral procession on 4th Street near China Basin. The driver, Reuben Espinosa, was taken into police custody for 48 hours and released on $15,000 bail. In the wake of a singularly tragic case of road rage, questions are being raised about the city’s perceived indifference to the safety of bicyclists. Questions are also being raised concerning whether the police or District Attorney’s Office are willing to do their jobs when it comes to conducting a thorough investigation of a potential homicide when the victim is a bicyclist and he is killed in traffic. 

Robertson, aged 32, had been a bike messenger for five years. He started working at Rainbow five months ago. A member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, he had been a regular in the AIDS Ride. His friends described him as "uniquely kind" and "good natured and intelligent". 

The bike procession that would end with Robertson’s death consisted of 20 odd bicyclists. It was being held in memory of retired bike messenger Joseph Woods, shot to death at his home in Bernal Heights on November 9th. According to Ron Salkin, a bike messenger who was participating in the event, it is traditional for bike messengers to conduct a funeral ride from South Park to China Basin whenever one of their own is killed. At the conclusion of the ride a ceremony is held at an undisclosed location. A portion of the ride takes the mourners down Brannan Street to 4th Street where they turn en masse onto the 4th Street Bridge and continue on to 3rd Street. It was on this section of the route that the group rode in front of the Peterbilt truck driven by Espinosa, a Casey Movers employee. According to one witness, this happened in front of the Caltrain Station. After crossing the Islais Creek Bridge things began to get ugly. 

"The bicycles were traveling slowly", said Police Inspector Garret Tom, "about 10 mph, taking up the two lanes of the southbound side of 4th Street. The driver started getting upset and started leaning on his horn. At one point he threw a wood wheel block at the bicyclists and missed. The bikes started veering back and forth. Two bicyclists rode into the northbound lane. The driver moved into that lane and ran over Chris who was one of the two riders in the northbound lane and dragged him about 50 feet before stopping."

Tom said that although Espinosa was arrested, more evidence would have been needed to hold him. Tom also said that it was not the responsibility of the SF Police Department to determine whether or not a crime had been committed, that this was the responsibility of the district attorney. All the police can do is gather evidence to submit to the DA who in turn will determine whether the incident can be prosecuted as a criminal case. 

Eye witness accounts 

Different witnesses have their own accounts of what they remember happening. Bok Choy Mathewson, a messenger who was in front of the procession when Robertson was run over, wrote in a statement, "[I] heard him [Espinosa] accelerate to cross the double yellow line, go into oncoming traffic and pass us. I heard a crunching sound (Chris’ bike) and a bunch of yelling." Also according to Mathewson however, "He threw a wooden block at the group, so his intention of doing bodily harm is quite obvious."

Ron Salkin was riding about 30 feet ahead of Robertson. He said he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary until after crossing the bridge at which time Espinosa began honking. Salkin said that he had stopped in the middle of the road to see what was going on and saw the truck swerving. "Chris was in the southbound lane. I didn’t see the driver throw the block of wood, but I saw it flying through the air. The driver then turned his tire into Chris." 

Thomas Miller was at the rear of the group. He saw the driver throw the block of wood and stopped to pick it up. He then saw the truck make a sudden movement and Robertson exit the vehicle’s underside. When the truck stopped, Miller said he ran up to the cab. "I opened the driver’s door and asked him why he threw the block of wood. [Espinosa] said, 'because he was in the way.'" Miller said that the mood of some of the bicyclists was ugly and so he slammed the door and kept angry bicyclists away until the police came. Miller, who described himself as an acquaintance of Robertson, said that he thought the incident was "road rage". 

Witnesses said that the driver was "snide and cavalier" after running over Robertson. When the ambulance arrived Robertson was taken to SF General where he was pronounced dead later that evening. A number of the procession stuck around to be interviewed by police, while some rode on to their destination and a few went to the hospital. 

Cyclists call it murder 

Almost immediately there was dissatisfaction with the police response. According to Salkin, "It seemed like they sent the wrong type of officers to the location. Uniformed cops. The officers seemed young and inexperienced."

About 200 bike activists protested Espinosa’s discharge from jail on December 1st at the Hall of Justice. They demanded a serious investigation and/or prosecution of what many of them see as murder. District Attorney Terence Hallinan met with some of the protestors and agreed to look further into the issue. At press time investigators from his office continued to interview and examine the physical evidence. 

Assistant District Attorney Murlene Randall, of the Homicide Division, is conducting the District Attorney’s Office’s continuing criminal investigation. "We’re trying to physically reconstruct what happened although there is no case pending," said Randall. "The driver was discharged from custody, but that is not the same thing as dismissal. We don’t want to rush to judgment since if we press any charges they would have to be appropriate." 

Paul Cummins, head of the DA’s Criminal Division stated that toxicology reports on both the victim and the driver and the results of accident reconstruction will be forthcoming. "Charges, if there are any, will be based on whatever facts are found. This could be anything from an accident to vehicular manslaughter all the way up to homicide. There’s a lot of public interest in this case." Cummins said that he had met with Robertson’s family and that the District Attorney’s Office is taking this investigation very seriously. 

Eric Murphy, an attorney and friend of Robertson, stated, "The general consensus is that this is a pretty prosecutable case." Murphy’s roll in the investigation consists of "making sure the DA’s Office is doing their job properly, that they just don’t throw up their hands." He has been following up with witnesses and making sure that the DA gets in contact with them. Salkin has spoken to the DA and Mathewson said that he would be talking to them. Murphy is also trying to start a non-profit organization in Robertson’s name to encourage motorist to be aware of the rights of bicyclists vis a vis autos. 

Among bike messengers and riders there is a feeling that the city is unconcerned about the safety of non-motorists that use its roads. "Thirty deaths last year and nothing’s being done," stated Bill Stender, a friend of Robertson’s. "This is indicative of transportation policy, cars keep pouring into the city and nothing intelligent is being done about it." 

"Out of thirty new cameras they’ve put up to make sure that people don’t run red lights they’ve ignored the most dangerous intersection in the city—Third and Market", said Salkin. "They’re just not doing anything right." Salkin said that Third and Market is the most deadly intersection that he has to encounter on a daily basis as a bike messenger. 

Whether or not Robertson was murdered has yet to be determined. Regardless, what his death emphasizes is the increasingly tense climate of San Francisco’s streets. Rush hour lasts longer, gridlock encompasses more intersections than in the past, drivers are becoming ruder. Is this a possible effect of overcrowding where infrastructure needs are not being addressed? As the city once noted for its tradition of bohemian tolerance slips ever more into a climate of confrontation, division and congestion, people are not only in more of a hurry than ever before, they are more impatient. Overworked and over packed commuters are on the verge of going ballistic as is just about everyone who has to navigate the streets. Unless something is done, bike riders - the people who contribute the least to traffic problems (despite the monthly spectacle of Critical Mass) - are going to be the ones hurt the worst. 


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