Crime - Sacto 911

Fatal crash in which Sacramento judge struck cyclist prompts questions

Columnist Margaret Bengs. Photo taken November 18, 2008.
Columnist Margaret Bengs. Photo taken November 18, 2008. rbonnafon@sacbee.com

A fatal Carmichael crash in which a Sacramento Superior Court judge struck and killed a cyclist this month has prompted questions from bicycle advocates and family members about whether the California Highway Patrol too hastily suggested the victim was at fault.

Margaret Bengs was hit on her bicycle by a 2014 Toyota Tundra driven by Matthew Gary on Fair Oaks Boulevard on the morning of Nov. 2, according to a CHP news release. Bengs died at Mercy San Juan Hospital two days after the accident.

Bengs, 66, 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.

“We have just been getting over the grief,” said Chris Bengs, Margaret’s brother. “We are just getting to the point where we are starting to ask questions.”

CHP officials did not answer those questions this week, citing a pending investigation, and they declined to identify Gary as a judge. But CHP spokeswoman Jenna Berry said that “everything” suggests Bengs may be responsible for the accident.

The front of Gary’s truck hit Bengs on Fair Oaks Boulevard about 100 feet south of Kenneth Avenue, Berry said. Gary turned left onto southbound Fair Oaks Boulevard from Kenneth Avenue. Bengs was crossing Fair Oaks Boulevard from the curb on the western side of Fair Oaks Boulevard, Berry said.

On that stretch, Fair Oaks Boulevard is a major commute thoroughfare with two lanes in each direction and a center turn lane. It does not have bike lanes where the crash occurred.

Bicycle advocates say the judge’s involvement has heightened their curiosity about what happened. Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, wondered why Gary was unable to stop before the collision and said he contacted CHP with questions about the incident.

“I was told ‘The bicyclist is often at fault,’ ” he said he was told by the CHP. “On the one hand, she said the investigation is ongoing; on the other, bicyclists are often at fault.”

In 2014, the CHP found bicyclists were at fault in about 60 percent of the approximately 140 fatal bike crashes that year, the Bee found in an analysis of CHP data.

Gary, 54, 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. State records show only one Matthew Gary registered to vote in Sacramento County, and his address is three blocks from the accident scene near Fair Oaks Boulevard and Kenneth Avenue.

Gary, through a court spokesman, declined to comment for this story. The spokesman said Gary would not say whether he was involved in the accident.

A 2014 Toyota is registered in his name, according to state vehicle records, and that appeared to be the pickup truck seen in his garage Thursday night before the garage door was closed. No one answered the door at Gary’s house; shortly after, a man who looked like Gary confronted a reporter outside but declined to identify himself or answer questions.

Bengs lived a few blocks from the crash site on the other side of Fair Oaks Boulevard from where Gary lives.

Berry said she could not say where the bike was hit by Gary’s car or exactly where the bike was in the road, citing the pending investigation. Still, “Everything indicates that she may have responsibility for the accident,” she said.

Bengs was not wearing a helmet and she crossed traffic out of the intersection, she added.

Chris Bengs, who lives in Carlsbad, said the family was stunned to read that she was not wearing a helmet. He said he was told that she always wears a helmet, and her helmet was included with her bloody clothes at the hospital. If she had not been wearing the helmet, it seems unlikely it would have been brought to the hospital, he said.

He said his sister took Fair Oaks Boulevard regularly to the American River Parkway. If that were the case on Nov. 2, she presumably would have taken Fair Oaks Boulevard southbound and would not have been crossing the street.

Berry said her agency is examining physical evidence and interviewing witnesses as part of its review.

“The occupations of those involved in this or any collision have no bearing on the investigation,” she said. “The CHP investigates all collisions in the most thorough way possible to determine the cause of each collision and to represent each party fairly and impartially.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Phillip Reese contributed to this story. Brad Branan: 916-321-1065, @BradB_at_SacBee

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