Family members and bicycle advocates say the California Highway Patrol botched key details in its investigation of a fatal bicycle crash this month involving a Sacramento Superior Court judge, deepening their skepticism about the agency’s handling of the case.
On Nov. 2, Judge Matthew Gary was driving his Toyota pickup truck on Fair Oaks Boulevard when he hit a bicycle ridden by Margaret Bengs, 66, who died the next day. Shortly after her death, a CHP spokeswoman said Bengs appeared to be at fault, in part because she was not wearing a helmet.
But a witness who stayed with her until paramedics arrived said she was wearing a helmet, and Bengs’ family says she had two helmets among her belongings at the hospital. Her relatives also note that Bengs died the day after the crash, not two days after, as the CHP had first reported.
Anne Bengs Maffucci said her sister suffered a crushed skull, two broken arms and a shattered kidney in the crash, and was taken off life support at the family’s request.
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“The CHP seems a bit negligent,” Maffucci said. “I hate to say this is a cover-up, but it seems like they are trying to slough this off like everything is OK.”
CHP spokeswoman Officer Jenna Berry defended her agency’s investigation.
“We take our time and work very hard to make sure that all investigations, especially collisions where a fatality is involved, are clear, concise, complete, and answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how in a time sequential manner,” she said in an email. “This is not a fast process.”
Berry said she made the mistake about Bengs’ date of death and sent a corrected version of the press release Tuesday.
She said she could not discuss whether Bengs wore a helmet, “as it is still part of the ongoing investigation.” The agency expects to complete the investigation before the end of the year.
Bengs previously served as a speechwriter for former Gov. George Deukmejian and former Attorney General Dan Lungren, and she was an op-ed contributor to The Sacramento Bee.
Gary, 54, has declined requests to discuss the accident. He has been a Sacramento Superior Court judge since he was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007; he ran unopposed for the seat in 2010.
Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said the helmet is an issue because CHP made a point of singling it out in its initial accounts of the crash. Now that the account has been proved wrong, “it raises red flags about how they conduct investigations,” he said.
Maffucci said she received two helmets in her sister’s belongings from the accident scene. One, marked with blood, she had been wearing, while the other helmet had been secured to her bike, Maffucci said.
Shannon Wells-Lawler said Bengs was wearing the helmet immediately after the crash. Wells-Lawler said she did not see the crash but pulled over on Fair Oaks Boulevard to help Bengs on her way to work as an executive chef at a Sacramento private school.
She said Gary and two other men stood over Bengs in the middle turn lane of Fair Oaks Boulevard just south of Kenneth Avenue. One of the men suggested they remove the helmet, but Wells-Lawler said she insisted they not move Bengs.
According to the CHP’s initial account, Gary made a left turn from Kenneth Avenue onto Fair Oaks Boulevard, while Bengs was crossing Fair Oaks from the other side of the street.
Based on the position of Bengs’ bike and body, Gary seems to have hit her when she was in the middle turn lane, Wells-Lawler said. She said it was raining and traffic was heavy on Fair Oaks Boulevard.
Standing in front of the intersection where the crash happened, Wells-Lawler this week called Fair Oaks Boulevard “very dangerous” and said she has seen many accidents on her daily commute on the road, which has four lanes of traffic and a center turn lane.
Christopher Gayner, a traffic accident reconstruction expert in Santa Barbara, said bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.
“The bicyclist had every right to be in the median as the motorist,” he said. “The big unknown in this is, what was her path and timing and what was his path and timing? It seems like he’s the only one that can answer these questions.”
Wells-Lawler said she grabbed two blankets from her car and draped them over Bengs, then held her hand and talked to her to try to keep her alert. Bengs could not speak and her eyes gave the impression that she was on the edge of consciousness, she said.
When paramedics arrived, one of them said, “You can go now,” she recalled. She and the two other witnesses left before the CHP arrived, she said. That left Gary as the only witness on the scene.
“It was all very strange,” she said, thinking that paramedics should have kept the witnesses there for questioning.
The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District responded to the accident. Assistant Chief Maurice Johnson said the district’s emergency responders usually let law enforcement decide how to handle witnesses, but he was not able to determine Friday what happened at the Nov. 2 crash.
Berry said the CHP urges any witnesses to contact the North Sacramento office at (916) 348-2300.