Thompson’s Sentence: Final Impressions

Patrick Watson, Ron Peterson, Deputy DA Mary Stone and Josh Crosby (l-r)

With the courtroom filled to capacity and people lined shoulder to shoulder along the back wall, Dr. Thompson was the last to enter the court and his appearance was a surprise. Dressed in blue prison scrubs and shackled, he took short steps to his seat and once seated I could tell he had lost a significant amount of weight while in prison, perhaps as much as 20 pounds. Frankly, it had done him good.

I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to the statements that might be made by the victims. In my mind I had thought, “Yadda, yadda, stiff sentence. Next.” As for the friends and family, I figured, “Yadda, yadda, great guy. Next.” I didn’t think that it would be much of an opportunity to shed new light on a situation that had brought international attention to the tension between cyclists and drivers. The formality would end with Thompson’s sentencing and my only concern was that if he walked out of court that day, the cycling community would feel utterly marginalized. Any jail time at all would be a success.

I was surprised to see that Christian Stoehr did not attend. Christian’s perspective on the events of July 4, 2008, has been entirely more detached and, dare I say, even relaxed than anyone else’s, even Deputy DA Mary Stone; I attribute it to the fact that he spent most of his formative years in Germany. And while it wouldn’t have surprised me if in his mind he was finished with the case and ready to move on, as it turned out, he was working on location in San Antonio and had wanted to attend.

Judge Millington indicated he would allow three people to speak for each side, given that Stoehr was not in attendance. Peter Swarth, as has been typical of his demeanor throughout the case, asked the judge to allow more people to speak on behalf of his client, but was denied.

Patrick Watson was the first to speak and I was surprised by the degree of his anger; he seemed as angry as when I spoke to him on the phone in December 2008, some nine months after the actual incident. As he told the judge, “Mr. Thompson tried to kill us,” it was apparent that he really believed Thompson had meant to do more than just scare him and Crosby that day. Judging from the reactions of several people in court, there was some perception that his anger was a bit overblown relative to the experience he’d had with Dr. Thompson. What did resonate was when he spoke of Thompson’s lack of remorse for his actions. While it was true that Thompson’s defense did not permit him to accept responsibility for what happened, the remose he had shown on the witness stand during the trial had rung hollow to the cyclists present. To the degree that any one of the victims has given the defense license to speak of cyclists wanting vengeance, I’d have to say Watson has enabled them to play that card.

Josh Crosby was more restrained in his statement. For the most part, he addressed Thompson directly and the judge only at the very end. When he spoke of how Dr. Thompson’s actions had placed everyone in the courtroom—“your actions led to this day; you put us here”—it eliminated the ability to see his participation in the trial as retribution, but rather as a requirement of civic duty.

He showed real compassion for Thompson’s family as well in saying, “I’ve been on the other side; I had to watch someone close to me go away for a while. I’m sorry ofor all the cyclists involved in this, but mostly I’m sorry for you Dr. Thompson. I’m sorry that after doing grave harm unto others you show no remorse. I’m sorry that as a man, you take no responsibility for those actions.”

As he spoke of watching someone close to him “go away,” his voice broke slightly in the remembering.

When Ron Peterson rose to speak, the already hushed courtroom seemed to go even quieter. The strain of the trial was writ large on his face and his movements were very restrained. If watching him speak was uncomfortable, I believe it wasn’t half the discomfort he felt.

You can see the entirety of Peterson’s statement in a post that accompanies this, as well as Dr. Thompson’s statement and the statement made by Judge Millington here.

When Dr. C. Thomas Thompson, Dr. Thompson’s father rose to speak, I was surprised that a 60-year-old man had the good fortune to still have his father. He rambled a bit, but several points in his address made an impact on at least some present. He talked about how his son’s “widow-maker” obstruction had the potential to make any prison sentence a life sentence. It was a sobering thought. He talked about remorse, the remorse his son had shown since moving in with his parents in Oklahoma, to which many of us present shrugged our shoulders as if to say, ‘Telling your father you’re sorry isn’t the same as telling the victims you are sorry.’

Most disturbing was him describing what occasioned his son’s move back to Oklahoma, that he had “been ridden out on rails.” I’ve heard the assertion before from Swarth and was unwilling to give it any greater weight than a convenient defense tactic. The elder Thompson’s recounting of death threats against Dr. Thompson should give cyclists everywhere pause, perhaps none more so than Patrick Watson, who first posted Dr. Thompson’s contact information on the Internet. We, as a community, should hang our heads in shame over the threats that Dr. Thompson received. We are better than this. The machinery of justice is less likely to stand by our side if we are perceived to engage in vigilante actions.

In the time Tom Freeman, the head of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Homeowner’s Association, spoke, he devoted most of his effort to PR for all the great things the homeowner’s association had done in making Mandeville Canyon a nice place to live rather than talking about why Dr. Thompson really deserved leniency in sentencing. Were it me, I’d have expected a little more direct support.

Last to speak on Thompson’s behalf was Lillian Ferguson. To the degree that anyone put a truly human face on Thompson, Ferguson did it. She told a moving story of her daughter’s relationship with Thompson, how he taught her piano at his home, her aspiration to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as well as he did, and her death in a car accident when she was 18 years old. Dr. Thompson and another doctor, she said, took it upon themselves to pay for her funeral and—through tears at this point—each week for the past 14 years Thompson has had flowers placed on her grave.

Just as the verdict came with a surprise—Dr. Thompson being remanded to custody on the spot—that Dr. Thompson chose to address Peterson, Watson, Crosby and Patrick Early (the cyclist who came forward and told of an altercation he’d had with Dr. Thomspon after he read about Peterson and Stoehr in the L.A. Times) was a big surprise.

I think nearly everyone present in court was shocked to hear Dr. Thompson say he took responsibility for his actions on July 4, 2008, that he admitted he was at fault for the injuries Stoehr and Peterson sustained. I don’t think anyone present would argue that he hadn’t done some soul-searching since his conviction.

We speak of people who are out of touch as needing a “come to Jesus.” Dr. Thompson had his. I saw tears of embarrassment, shame, love and truly, remorse. But oddly, Dr. Thompson’s reckoning seemed only to apply to the events of July 4. In addressing Watson and Crosby, he reminded them how they frightened him and went on to insist that he never encountered Early, despite the avowed car guy’s thorough description of the car and partial plate.

Even after Dr. Thompson’s statement, Swarth continued to stand by the defense conceit that Dr. Thompson was only stopping to take a photograph. To stand by that story means standing by the assertion that Stoehr and Peterson somehow brought the day’s events on themselves, that they were in some way at fault.

He railed against the suggestion by the victims that Dr. Thompson had shown no remorse, pointing out how when he testified during the trial he had expressed his sorrow that anyone had been injured.

In standing by the tattered defense it was as if, confronted with the actual Big Foot, Swarth continued to deny its existence. Further, citing Thompson’s previous apology showed his complete disconnect from the emotional experience of seemingly anyone who came in contact with him during the trial (indeed, his rudeness to all members of the media became a source of amusement to us). Because the context of Dr. Thompson’s apology was entirely different, the meaning, and therefore, its credibility, was entirely different as well.

Later, with regards to Dr. Thompson’s apology Early said to me, “He should have made that statement on the Fifth of July.”

When I asked him about Dr. Thompson’s unwillingness to acknowledge any altercation with him he said, “He drove me off the road and doesn’t even remember it! That says a lot about his attitude.”

Dr. Thompson said that cyclists and drivers are at a crossroads. In that, he was wrong; the tension between the two communities has been at a boil for years. Assaults happen on a daily basis; some are more veiled than others and the will of the police to investigate them is as variable as the profile of a mountain range.

It was Judge Millington’s statement that brought closure to the saga. He acknowledged cyclists’ vulnerability and declared a need for cyclists and motorists to consider their actions in sharing common motorways. He also declared the responsibility on the part of the government to provide bike lanes so that cyclists may enjoy safe passage on the nations roads.

May we hope that legislators everywhere hear Judge Millington’s words.

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  1. Shawn

    I’m a little nervous about Judge Millington’s statement that the government needed to provide bike lanes. I, and many cyclists, have a fear that one day bicycles will only be allowed on bike paths and we will lose our rights to be on the road.

  2. Marco Placero

    1000 thanks Padraig for soliciting and forwarding letters supporting Thompson’s sentencing, and grazie also for these follow-up posts that helped temper my searing emotion. That being stated, after reading your excerpt of Thompson’s sentencing statement, he still doesn’t get it. I think Thompson is a psychotic.

    Look at his language, he claims remorse but talks about being “dragged” into controversy, despite his taking intentional acts to injure a fellow human. He was the one that did the dragging, to put it grimly. He claims remorse but chooses to insinuate how a shared responsibility to communicate might have somehow prevented his crime, like it was only half his fault. Although I agree that more talk between road users is needed, Thompson highlighted this as an excuse rather than as a solution. Let’s see how much effort he puts into developing a dialog during and after his imprisonment.

    Just a moment more to discuss the homeowners of upper Mandeville Canyon. Several years back I had a horrid, life altering experience with a resident of that community, who seized on me and held me in a traumatic litigious situation for nearly two years in an attempt to extort money from me by blaming me for an act I had absolutely nothing to do with, other than that I transported this person to a hospital after he was injured. Dr. Thompson’s statements, the egotistical non-statements by the homeowners association, and the acts of this individual I dealt with lead me to think that some residents of this neighborhood believe themselves to be anointed with a special status just by the fact that they live in this unique, beautiful canyon off Sunset Blvd. For those like Thompson who may be vulnerable to this type of self-aggrandizement, prison time will hopefully set an example warning motorists in that neighborhood and hopefully across the country. Not only is proper cycling lane provision needed in Mandeville Canyon– and many other similar roads in California– strict law enforcement would help reduce the ridiculously high automobile speeds I’ve witnessed on that road, in addition to ignorant motorist vigilantism I’ve experienced over 30 years of road riding in Northern California.

    Cyclists, be sure to publicize this tragedy and outcome to members of the cycling community, to motorists who level threats to cyclists through media opinion-writing, and to government and law enforcement authorities.

  3. velomonkey

    Very good write up. I fully agree, we as a group should be better than to dish out death threats to this guy. Great work throughout.

  4. mike

    Finally the Justice system sends a message to the public about this type of incident.
    I feed sad for Dr. Thompson. I feel sad he never took true responsibility for his actions. It took 6 months, a guilty conviction and a sentencing for him to apologize. Just like Michael Vick finally was sorry about the dog fighting after he was convicted. Sick of people only finding “religion” after they lose their defense and are convicted.

    Bike Safe and control the anger. Be the better person.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words everyone; this has been an important case for the cycling community and I’ve felt a real responsibility to make sure the story is told as accurately as possible. There are a great many lessons to be learned here, most of the cautionary variety.

      A few of my takeaways:
      —If I must do something with my middle finger, I should put it in my nose.
      —If I ever need a defense lawyer, I will hire someone who could charm Dick Cheney, not offend the whole room.
      —If I use the Interwebs to find someone’s personal contact info, it had better be an old friend.
      —If I speak to a driver, I would do well to comment on the weather.

      Look everyone, what I’ve written has been as honest and yet heartfelt as I can make it. I’ve done what I can to be fair to all parties. I say that as a prelude to what my riding buddies already know: I have a history for making some very spicy statements to drivers. To the degree that any of us have ever reacted poorly to an aggressive (or clueless) driver, I am that rider. I am not above anyone here, but I’m doing this publicly to remind me as much as any of you how badly this can go.

      Shawn: In California law, there’s a big difference between a bike lane and a bike path. Not the same thing; a bike lane can only be created on a street.

      Marco: I’m sorry to hear of your experience. Members of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Homeowner’s Association made some menacing gestures and statements to the four witnesses once court was in recess. Mary Stone took them out the back way. While it isn’t fair to paint the entire HOA with the same brush, some of their members need a come to Jesus. More than anything, they need to understand that if in descending that road they catch a cyclist going the speed limit, they have already broken the law. To pass a cyclist on that road requires them to break a second.

      Should we be riding three and sometimes four abreast up that climb? No. However, there’s nothing in the California vehicle code that demands we ride single file.

      Velomonkey: Had Swarth been more effective in his defense of Thompson I think Watson’s posting of Thompson’s contact info on the Internet would have been a much greater embarrassment during the case than it was. Honestly, I’m surprised more wasn’t made of it. It was a terrible idea that was indefensible.

      Ron: Well said. Religion is a common antidote to fear.

      Mike: I don’t think anyone ever has a full epiphany in a single sitting. Thompson’s has begun and he will learn more as time goes. Unfortunately, he is no longer our concern; there are millions of other drivers who need the epiphany he has had, and an epiphany can’t be shared like a Coke.

  5. Trev

    Does anyone know what type of prison Dr Thompson will go to? Will it be a white collar rsort style or will he be dropped into somewhere like San Quentin? (I am Canadian , that the only California prison I can name).

    1. Author

      The Big House—state prison. No country clubs for Thompson. I just don’t know which one.

      A side note: For those of you unaware with California’s budgetary woes (they are colossal), one of the more significant problems we have is with prison health care. For all that Thompson is not, the combination of his widow-maker blockage and our terrible prison health care is a frightening combination. I’m no fan of his, but the guy doesn’t deserve to die for his crimes.

  6. Souleur

    thanks for that coverage Padraig, its very insightful. The recommendations, also, are hard ones to follow but the best ones to follow. You said it very well as usual.

  7. Christian Stoehr

    I would like to personally thank all the cyclist for your continuous support over these almost 2 years now. Thank you for writing over 250 letters to the court on our behalf, thank you for keeping this case in the media and sharing its messages. We all know that this kind of tragedy happens almost every day, a lot of times much worse. I`ve been reading up on incident reports since July 4th. I consider Ron and myself lucky. I have my arm and shoulder back, there is a rather large bump on my right shoulder, which makes it painful to cary anything hard, like cameras, but again, I consider myself lucky.
    Hopefully we all raised some awareness for drivers to slow down and give us a break, for law enforcements to listen to our complaints and act on them, and to our selfs, to always be as polite and respectful as possible. The cycling community is a great community, which opened its arms to me 5 years ago, lets spread the word.
    Thank you all again.

  8. Pingback: Bike versus Car @ Run. Bike. Beer.

  9. Doug

    Bravo Padraig,for your thoughtful treatment of this issue. The answer to criminal acts is not more crimes, it is the justice system. Responsible people doing the right thing in a sober fashion will accomplish more than hate-filled invective. Too bad prosecutors “failed to act” after Mr Thompson’s first road rage incident. A simple stern phone call from the police to Mr Thompson after his first incident might have prevented this whole debacle.

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