The Monster

Rear Windshield

I love a good tragedy. When it comes to Shakespeare, give me Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear. In movies, I prefer flawed heroes and fallen angels. If I cheer at the death of the villain, then I never connected with the character and that means he could only have been two-dimensional, and we know what two-dimensional pictures of bad guys are used for: target practice.

Similarly, I’m not big on god-like figures. As a kid, I was a bit of a smart-ass (not saying that has changed) and once asked in Sunday school why we were busy trying to emulate perfection if we, as man, were doomed to imperfection. I didn’t quite articulate the whole of my thought, which was, ‘If I can see flaws in Jesus, be they moments of doubt or indecision or even waves of fear, then I can identify more easily with him and thus will be inspired to at least try to follow in his footsteps.’ I was filled with such doubt on a daily basis and I simply couldn’t identify with his confidence of mission. ‘What was that like?’ I wondered.

I have received a lot of praise for my work covering the trial of Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson. I’m grateful for every note I have either received here or that has been sent to VeloNews. Nothing could please me more than to know that my effort to be fair and unbiased in my reporting resonated with readers.

The story of this case is obviously tragic in broad strokes, but I think it is easy to miss the more human elements that make us identify with each of the people involved and feel for the ways their lives have changed.

In Christian Stoehr’s case, he endured a four and a half hour surgery to repair his shoulder. He spent the vast majority of his settlement on his physical therapy. With the little money left over he built a pizza oven. He’s guaranteed arthritis in that shoulder and will never be able to carry the bigger cameras that were once a prominent part of his professional life. Once a fixture of my training rides, I rarely see him anymore.

As easygoing as Ron Peterson is, he’s an intensely competitive guy. Prior to Thompson’s assault, Ron was racing as a Cat. 1 and had the ability to win on any course; he could drop you going up, down or in a sprint. As a coach, he had helped novice riders become good racers and some very good racers become legendary. Today, he’s on the local rides occasionally … at best. His sense of justice might get a boost someday; he has filed a civil suit against Thompson and with the help of a forensic accountant, they might find some compensation for his suffering. Nothing will really make up for the missed days on the bike either of these guys has experienced, though.

But here’s what none of us really want to think about: Subtract about three minutes from Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson’s life and chances are none of us would ever have heard his name. His given name is largely irrelevant to us judging from the names he’s been called on blogs, web sites and in e-mails.

Monster is the clear winner, with a bullet and heading up the charts fast.

Certainly the act he committed is monstrous, but does that make him a monster? I have problems with this sort of thinking for a few reasons. First, one of the great fallacies of irrational thinking is believing that if you do something bad, you are bad. Going to Catholic schools as a kid, I got that message a lot, thankyouverymuch.

Second, once we reduce a guy to a cardboard cutout, painting him as a villain, we remove him from humanity and deny that he had anything in common with us. Seeing someone as all bad is called splitting; it is a defense mechanism that gives us a chance to devalue another person. It’s convenient and neat, and saves us the onerous task of recognizing how his temper might be a first cousin to our own tempers.

I don’t know Dr. Thompson and don’t want to know him. But in working on my coverage about this “incident,” I learned a thing or two about him. He’s a musician. Present tense. Judging from a personal page that used to be on the Touch Medix web site, he’s a big wine nut; there were a few photos of him holding a glass full of what looked to be Cabernet. He lived on Mandeville Canyon; if you’ve ever been up the canyon, then you know anyone who chooses to live there has some clue about the good life. He’s an entrepreneur; Touch Medix is a company he launched with a friend to respond to a need they perceived in hospital medical records. He does, in fact, have a heart; he paid for the funeral of the daughter of an ex-girlfriend and paid for flowers to be on her grave every month.

He’s also a guy who lied to the court about his motivation for stopping in front of Ron and Christian. He lied under oath to a judge and a jury. He’s a physician who had to get through a fair amount of physics in college who claimed he wanted to get a photo of the cyclists as they passed—a ridiculous suggestion that seemingly anyone with half a brain would have understood as essentially impossible given his claimed distance ahead of them and the speed they were moving. And he expected us to believe him.

We don’t know what his sentence will be, but the loss of his medical license is virtually assured. I won’t pretend to know what the appropriate punishment is for his actions, but the loss of his medical license seems appropriate.

But is he a monster? Let me ask the question a different way. Is he a villain? Is he the black-hat-wearing, cardboard-cutout, Darth Vader of car drivers?

Hopefully, Dr. Thompson will do some soul searching and look back on the choice he made on July 4, 2008, as the low point in his judgment, though it’s possible he’ll deflect and decide his worst choice wasn’t hitting the brakes but hiring Peter Swarth to represent him. These things happen. History knows the truth: It’s unlikely Thompson will ever make a poorer choice than when he hit the brakes that morning on Mandeville Canyon. Should we sum up the whole of his identity in a single choice?

Perhaps it is fair to wonder if his identity should be different from his station in life post-verdict. Some time down the road, he’ll be out of prison and an employee of a medical records software company, a former doctor and convicted felon.

Photo: Chris Roberts

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  1. Bret Moss

    Monster – Unfortunately because of the civil action over him he cannot begin his transformation back to productive citizen. His ignorance will define him until he admits driving a car requires the utmost care and responsibility to the lives around him.

    I am truly sorry for your pelotons loss. There is no substitute for the friendships and comradery while riding on the rivet.

    It’s ironic how flying down the road on two small patches of tarmac can bond people forever. Dr. Monster had way to much rubber touching the road to understand the fragility of life.

  2. Robot

    Thanks for this, P. This piece encapsulates much of what I’ve been thinking from the beginning of the trial. It’s too easy to vilify the doctor, to see that momentary decision as the whole of the parts, the one thing you need to know to judge the man’s entire life.

    I’ve made poor choices in my life. Further, I’ve made poor choices in my life that put my and other people’s lives at risk. I’ve done that and, most fortunately, escaped more or less unscathed.

    I’m not better than Dr. Thompson. That’s my starting point.

    Each of us deals with the consequences of our actions, and now Dr. Thompson will have to accept his consequences. It’s fair, and it’s justice, and it’s a good outcome for everyone, including him.

    In my experience, angry people aren’t happy people, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re riding a bike or driving a car. Anger is unpleasant. It’s painful.

    So coming out of this trial, I see physically and perhaps mentally injured cyclists struggling to get their lives back together, and I see a doctor, a guy who’s helped an awful lot of people, heading off to jail, all for a moment of true madness.

    And though it’s fair and just, it’s also sad. Sad for everyone involved.

    So I don’t see Dr. Thompson as a monster. No. I see him as a man in an awful lot of pain, both before the accident and after, with a whole lot of pain and soul-searching left in front of him.

    I just hope everyone involved can find their way back.

  3. randomactsofcycling

    I sit here in Sydney where at about the same time last year we had a similar incident, involving a car and a (large) regular bunch ride that takes place on a weekday morning (6am) on a busy road. The driver swerved in front of the group and slammed on the brakes, taking down at least a dozen riders, none of them killed thank goodness. The driver was portrayed in the local media as having a ‘brain snap’ because the cyclists dared to ride on a busy road and they were slowing him down. His defence was vehicular malfunction.
    The comparison between portrayals of victims/perpetrators is always interesting, depending upon which section of society we are from. As a cyclist I thought this guy was mad as a cut snake. Everyone else (vehicular commuters) almost had sympathy for him.
    How do we address the gap in perception?

  4. roomservicetaco

    I can appreciate the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ approach and thanks for sharing some of the other details of Dr. Thompson’s life.

    On the other hand, we need to also consider that the incident on July 4 was not merely one man letting anger get the better of him in the heat of a conflict. It was a largely pre-meditated attack. We can’t know whether he had pre-meditated to put the cyclists in the hospital, but he definitely had given prior thought to ways he could ‘teach a lesson’ to them. And, he should have known the potential consequences that the lesson could have to the cyclists’ health.

    Clearly, Dr. T and others in his community had been bothered by cyclists well in the past – as evidenced by the idea of taking pictures to share with his homeowner’s association. And, the prior incident (plus others we may not know about) on the same road bolstered his confidence in using his car as a deterrant.

    Dr. T certainly had it in his mind prior to July 4 that the next time he saw bicycles riding 2 abreast, he would take matters in his own hands.

    There are lots of people who will spend lots more time behind bars than Dr. T for completely one-off fits of anger (bar fights that turn into assault, domestic crimes-of-passion, etc.).

    Another thing that I also find monstrous, is the fact that Dr. Thompson decided to carry his case forth, including very obviously lying to the court, rather than take responsibility for what he did. Yes, every one deserves a day in court, but he could also have shown sympathy and empathy for his victims and not put them or the jurors through the process of a trial.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thank you for your comments, especially those of you new to commenting on RKP.

      Bret: Like you, I believe in redemption and its transformative power. I have yet to see anything in Thompson that would lead me to believe he has taken any amount of responsibility for his actions and without really owning what took place that day, I don’t see how that transformation can take place. Indeed, many people remain so angry, they never reach that point.

      Robot: Thanks much. Like you, I’m beyond fortunate that my dumber choices didn’t result in harm to me or anyone else. Your point about anger is spot-on. Anger and happiness cannot coexist in a person. There’s a lesson in that for me.

      Randomactsofcycling: I read about what took place in Sydney and it’s just tragic. Knowing that it was a group ride, I could easily picture myself in the middle of that mayhem. As for the gap in perception, we need partners in this process of educating drivers. The partners we need are the police, the media and the prosecutors.

      Roomservicetaco: I’m not saying we need to love Dr. Thompson, but we ought to be careful the degree to which we condemn him. I don’t think his actions were premeditated in any way; from the testimony I heard, I think he just lost it any time he saw a cyclist.

      The defense involving ‘photographing the scofflaws’ was, I think, a red herring in the Hitchcockian sense. I don’t think he ever really had that intention. He concocted that defense with his lawyer after the arrest, I believe. I don’t really think he was dumb enough not to understand that after stopping they’d move past him faster than he could photograph them. He was an ER doc, so he’s smarter than your average bear.

      From what I understand, Thompson wasn’t offered any sort of plea deal. It’s only natural that he fought the felony charges because a guilty plea would have meant essentially surrendering his medical license on the spot. A not guilty plea was his only shot at keeping his medical license and if we can’t understand his hope of pulling that out, then we really haven’t learned anything about the man.

  5. Craig

    This article has the even handedness that a lot of the writing on the case has sorely lacked. Thomson made a bad decision, for which he will spend time in prison. Two riders have had their lives seriously impacted. This is a lose-lose situation. Nevertheless, justice is not and should not be vindictive. Pettiness gets us nowhere. Thomson should certainly be punished for his action, actions which could very well have ended in the deaths of the two cyclists had any number of circumstances been different. But going on a which hunt diminishes us all. I think that the best course of action is to let the hatred end, let the wheels of justice quietly turn, let Thomson serve what will in all likelihood be a fairly lengthy prison term, and let the two cyclists get on with their lives. Hopefully the cyclists can return to what they love, Thomson can serve his punishment, realise the errors of his ways, and everyone can get on with their lives.

  6. Bret Gross

    “..the onerous task of recognizing how his temper might be a first cousin to our own tempers.”

    This concept is at the heart of the entire sad affair: the actions of the doctor, his supporters, and his detractors.
    What he did is unconscionable, and his apparent inability to ‘own’ his motives, his actions, and their consequences demonstrates a dark side of humanity that ‘we’ always attribute to ‘them’.
    My goal is to cultivate the same compassion for Dr. Thompson’s suffering as I easily feel for the suffering of his victims.
    I’m not there yet. But I must admit that what keeps me *trying* is the recognition that, in some sense, there is no ‘other’: only reflections of my own heart.

    1. Author

      “Reflection of my own heart.”—Well said. Thanks for your comment Bret.

      Craig: Thanks for your kind words. Such an important story deserves our very best efforts, at least my very best effort. The truth will tell us what we need to know and editorializing on my part would only have hurt. And anyone looking in from the outside would have taken my attitude to stand for the attitude of all cyclists, making us all look petty and vindictive. Not good.

  7. Larry T.

    This guy is a self-centered jerk, plain and simple. He was inconvenienced (by his thinking) by these bicycle riders out there having fun while he was involved in big, important work. We deal with this a lot when we visit Santa Barbara over the holidays — either it’s the big shot in his overpriced German car racing off to some appointment or it’s the guy in the Ford F-150 who cleans bigshot’s pool. To both of them, we’re not important as we’re not WORKING as they are, we’re just cyclists using THEIR roads. The problem is the car-centered, business-is-everything mindset so prevalent today along with the idea that the road is strictly for CARS and nobody else. It’s more prevalent where there’s more money and commerce, less prevalent in places like Iowa, where we live when we’re not in Italy (or sponging off the in-laws in SB!) though I have to admit just today we were passed by a Buick with 3-4 six to ten year old kids leaning out the windows yelling “get on the sidewalk where ya belong” One certainly knows where the learn that! The guy’s not a monster unless you consider every self-centered jerk driving a car in a big hurry one as well. When they assault other road users they need to be put away so they can think about what they’ve done and (hopefully) never have a license to drive again!

  8. Willem

    I understand that people just like myself can fly into fits of rage. However, I lose all sympathy for anyone who does so when wielding a deadly weapon. Whether you let your judgment slip while behind the wheel of a car or with your finger on the trigger of a gun, it makes no difference. people have to start realizing that when they are driving a car they have a heightened responsibility that comes with the privilege of being able to drive. And, I don’t care if we all have similar road rage habits when behind the wheel, shame on all of us. This case should be an eye opener for everyone to take more responsibility for our actions when behind the wheel. On the bike however, all bets are off:)

  9. Pat

    This was a very sensitively written and insightful piece. Indeed Dr. Thompson is more than the result of his angry decision(s) behind the wheel. But he must see the consequences of his actions through. Some for the confrontations with bicyclists. Some for hiring an attorney like Peter Swarth. IMO, both were poor decisions that he will need to reflect on and reconcile himself with.

    Thank you for taking the time to get beyond the venom and cover the facts. You’ve got a deft hand at what you do.

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