Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Confrontation lands cyclist in court on assault charges

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

Cheryl Rains was biking on the American River trail in July when she felt someone’s hand on her hip. It was another cyclist, Gregory Araya, pushing her as he passed her, and yelling at her to stay in her lane.

“Don’t put your hands on me!” Rains said she shouted back. Another push from Araya sent Rains sprawling down an embankment, she said, feet still clipped to her bike. Araya briefly stood over her, yelling, according to police reports, then pedaled away when another cyclist arrived to help Rains.

Sacramento County parkway rangers and cyclists readily say the often-crowded recreation trail along the American River is the scene of occasional shouting matches among cyclists and others. But it is rare when an incident becomes physical, and even rarer when it ends up in court.

That’s where Araya now finds himself. The 52-year-old Fair Oaks resident was arraigned in Sacramento Superior Court this week on a charge of felony assault and is scheduled to appear in court again next month for what Judge Laurel White described as a settlement conference. The judge advised Araya to stay away from Rains on the parkway trail. Both are trail regulars.

Araya’s attorney, Philip Cozens, contended that Araya was acting in self-defense that day near the train trestle a few hundred yards west of the spot where Business 80 crosses the parkway.

Although the incident is unusual, some cyclists said they are not surprised. Several riders complained to county parkway rangers last year about Araya, alleging that he was verbally abusive and had spit at some riders. In a statement to police, Araya acknowledged, “I’ve had my fair share of confrontations with people out there. It happens.”

County Chief Ranger John Havicon said he has no documented evidence, though, from any victim of a spitting incident. Araya’s attorney called the spitting allegation “prosecution by innuendo.”

Rains could not be reached for comment. But the bike trail incident is chronicled in detail in the court file based on interviews police investigators conducted with Rains, Araya and Mike Wiley, who heads Sacramento Regional Transit and is a regular trail user. Wiley witnessed part of the altercation and came to Rains’ aid after she fell over the embankment.

After the initial push and exchange of shouts, Araya said, he stopped his bike by the side of the trail “to tell her again to stay to the right side of the line.” He told police he had admonished Rains in the past about her bike riding. As she approached, he said, he put out his hand again, this time hitting her shoulder, causing her to tumble down the embankment. “Had I known she was going to fall over like a house of cards, I wouldn’t have touched her,” he told police. “I was trying to keep her at a distance. I obviously hit her harder than I should have.”

According to court documents, Rains contends Araya was trying to block her path, and she was trying to squeeze past him when he hit her on the shoulder with both hands.

Wiley, who was coming up behind the pair, saw Araya’s initial shove but did not see what caused Rains to end up in the ditch, he told police and reiterated this week in an interview with The Bee. Wiley said he had been annoyed a few moments earlier when Araya sped past him on the trail without offering the customary “on your left” verbal warning. Wiley said the pair were yelling at each other as he went by. When he glanced back, he said, “She was headfirst down the embankment ... he was standing over her yelling at her.”

Wiley turned back to help Rains. “I told him to stop,” he told police. “He got back on his bike and rode off.”

Wiley unclipped Rains from her bike and helped her up. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she was treated for cuts and bruises. Araya, who told police he is not employed, was arrested later when a news report about the incident prompted tips about his identity.

Araya has had previous legal issues, most recently in 2008 when he pleaded guilty to giving false identification to an officer, according to court records. Two other charges stemming from that 2008 incident – failing to stop at a stop sign and refusing to comply with a lawful order – were dismissed, records show.

County park rangers and cycling advocates say the incident is highly unusual. Jim Brown, head of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said it doesn’t appear to be about bike trail crowding issues or bicyclist behavior.

“It’s so outside the norm,” he said. “It is not really a bicycling issue, or parkway issue. It’s an impulse control issue. It’s an assault. That’s why we have law enforcement and the courts.”