LA road rage trial begins. Prosecutors play a 911 recording, the defense calls it an unfortunate accident.
By Patrick Brady
Published: Oct. 19, 2009
After one cyclist slammed into the rear of his car and vaulted over it into oncoming traffic, and another crashed through his rear window, Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson called 911 and told the operator, “They’ll tell you they are seriously injured, but they’re not.”
Prosecutors presented a recording of the call on Friday during the opening day of testimony in Thompson's trial on assault with a dangerous weapon and other charges. The trial continues Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Prosecutors say Thompson, 60, a former ER doctor, purposefully braked in front of the two riders as they descended Mandeville Canyon Road on July 4, 2008.
Cyclist Christian Stoehr hit the back of Thompson's Infiniti sedan and went over the top into the other lane. His injuries included a grade-3 shoulder separation and road rash. Ron Peterson went through the rear window; the impact broke his nose, nearly severing it, and shattered several of his teeth. More than 90 stitches were required to reattach his nose.
In opening statements Friday, Thompson's defense attorney Peter Swarth said the collision was an unfortunate accident and not the result of any intentional action. He said Dr. Thompson had been saving lives for more than 30 years and would never deliberately hurt anyone. He told the jury there are two sides to every story and insisted that the facts of the case would exonerate his client, provided jurors kept open minds and didn’t decide the case prematurely.
Earlier incidents will be examined
District Attorney Mary Stone promised jurors that she would present evidence about the Fourth of July incident, including the tape of the 911 call, in which Thompson can be heard telling one of the cyclists to get his bike out of the road before downplaying the extent of their injuries. Stone told jurors she would also present evidence from two prior episodes on the same road, allegedly involving Thompson, the owner of a medical records company who lives on the road.
Mandeville Canyon Road is a two-lane, dead-end street in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood. It's popular with cyclists who want a climb with relatively little traffic.
In both prior incidents, the cyclists described a driver in a car similar to Thompson's and in one case the cyclist recorded the car's license plate number, which matched Thompson's.
The first incident involved car buff and casual cyclist Patrick Early. Early was riding up the hill in winter 2008 when he said someone resembling Thompson approached from behind, swung close and shouted at him, “Get the fuck off the road.” Early replied “Fuck you,” and says the driver hit his brakes, stopping short. Because Early was traveling uphill, he was able to stop without running into the back of the car. He reported the incident only after reading about Peterson and Stoehr's incident in the Los Angeles Times. Early told the prosecutor he felt remorse for not contacting the police at the time of the incident.
The second incident occurred in March 2008 when cyclists Patrick Watson and Josh Crosby were passed from behind by a car resembling Thompson's. After shouting at them, the driver allegedly hit his brakes and stopped, forcing Crosby into the oncoming traffic lane while Watson bunny hopped over the curb and rode into a yard.
The Fourth of July ride
Peterson and Stoehr had taken part in a Fourth of July group ride and were descending behind the rest of the group after assisting another cyclist who had fallen and waiting for paramedics to arrive.
They say Thompson approached the duo at speed in a late-model burgundy Infiniti sedan and honked at them before pulling alongside and telling them to ride single file. After a brief exchange of words, the cyclists say, Thompson pulled ahead of them and then stopped short.
Thompson is charged with two felony counts each of assault with a deadly weapon, mayhem, battery with serious bodily injury and the added enhancement of causing great bodily injury. The reckless driving charge is related to the March, 2008, incident. The other charges are related to the July 4 incident.
Opening testimony came from Stoehr. Stone asked him a number of questions about his expertise as a cyclist, when he began racing, when he hired a coach, the attraction of riding on Mandeville Canyon, the nature of the road, the location of the crash and Thompson’s actions leading up to, during and following the crash. Swarth made four objections about testimony lacking foundation and each time Judge Scott Millington overruled the objection.
Swarth, on cross examination, tried to suggest that the cyclists involved in the Fourth of July holiday ride “took over the road.” Stone objected to the characterization, and the judge sustained the objection.
What followed was a lengthy discussion about Stoehr’s level of experience, whether his bike was in proper working order, how brakes work on a bicycle and the distances involved in the accident: how far Stoehr was behind Peterson at the time Thompson stopped, how much room Thomspon left as he passed them and how much room Peterson and Stoehr took up in the traffic lane as they descended. On several occasions Judge Millington had to admonish Swarth to allow Stoehr to finish answering a question before asking another.
Testimony ended early as a juror had to leave court for a funeral. Testimony will resume with Stoehr, followed by Peterson on Monday at 10:30 a.m. PST.