Basalt driver-cyclist confrontation ends in convictions of both
November 5, 2010
BASALT – A traffic altercation that escalated into a fistfight between a driver and a road bicyclist ended with both being convicted of one charge each.
A three-person jury in Basalt Thursday found the driver, Dan Friel, 47, of Missouri Heights, guilty of careless driving but acquitted him of disorderly conduct and an obscure traffic offense called overtaking a vehicle on the left.
The cyclist, Harold Kirkpatrick Jr., 59, of Carbondale, had earlier pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for his actions after he confronted Friel for allegedly “buzzing” him while passing on Frying Pan Road.
The incident was one of the more extreme confrontations that occur between drivers and cyclists on roadways in the Roaring Fork Valley. No statistics were readily available on such incidents, but both drivers and cyclists consistently complain about the actions of the other group.
Testimony at the trial differed on two major points – where the traffic contact occurred and who was the aggressor once Kirkpatrick and Friel started throwing punches.
Kirkpatrick testified that he and a friend were riding toward Basalt on Frying Pan Road in late morning Friday, Aug. 6, when they approached a stop sign by the barber shop at the edge of downtown. He said they stopped, remained single file on the far right side of the road, and got passed by a pick-up that came within 12 to 18 inches of them.
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“He made a point of taking away our space,” Kirkpatrick said. “He took all our margin of safety from us.”
Kirkpatrick said he is an avid cyclist in the area and believes 95 percent of vehicle drivers are courteous toward cyclists. Another 4 percent are neutral and may not provide as much space as he would like but they aren’t necessary putting cyclists in danger. “Very, very, very occasionally,” he said, drivers seem like they are “playing a game” and pass extremely close to a cyclist to send a message.
Friel represented himself in the trial and testified in his defense. He not only denied intentionally brushing too close to the cyclists, he disagreed with Kirkpatrick’s assessment of where he passed them. Friel said he passed the men on Midland Avenue, Basalt’s main street, in front of the Catholic Church. He said he was trailing “two or three” other vehicles that also passed the cyclists, then he rolled by them in his pick-up. He said he gave them all the room he could on the busy street.
While there was differing testimony from various witnesses, it was clear that all hell broke loose over the next two blocks. Friel claimed Kirkpatrick and his riding partner were banging on his pick-up with their fists, kicking the doors and yelling at him. At one point, the cyclist with Kirkpatrick got in front of Friel’s vehicle and unsuccessfully tried to get him to stop.
The cyclists caught Friel a short distance away at a stop sign at the intersection of Midland and Two Rivers Road. Kirkpatrick’s buddy stood in front of Friel’s pick-up and wouldn’t let him pass while Kirkpatrick came up to the driver’s window.
“I felt it was important as a bicyclist to bring it to somebody’s attention how this guy was driving,” Kirkpatrick said.
Friel called 911 while the cyclists were in pursuit and, once he was stopped and confronted, he rolled down his window and asked Kirkpatrick to provide his name so he could give it to the police dispatcher.
The men exchanged phrases that would probably make sailors blush – but they had differing views on who started the fisticuffs. Kirkpatrick said Friel indicated he could take him in a fight. Kirkpatrick said he reached up to mockingly squeeze Friel’s biceps, which was at the window.
“I said ‘Oh, yeah, you’re such a scary guy,’ and he hit me,” Kirkpatrick testified. “By the time I realized he hit me, he hit me twice.”
Kirkpatrick said he swung back once. Both men landed a punch or two to the opponent’s face. Friel got out of the truck, and the melee continued for a short while until a bystander pulled Kirkpatrick back. Police arrived a short time later.
In Friel’s testimony, he described pandemonium for a few moments. He was on the telephone with a police dispatcher, his 17-year-old daughter was crying in the truck, and the two guys were “attacking us,” he said.
Friel claimed Kirkpatrick reached in the truck and grabbed his neck after he rolled the window down. Kirkpatrick was cursing at both him and his daughter, he said.
Reflecting back on the incident, Friel said, “I believe I did everything right.” He called 911, he initially stayed in his truck, and he tried to avoid a physical confrontation, he said. Friel testified that he only swung at the cyclist because he feared he would soon be under attack. He hinged his case on a person’s right to defend himself under a reasonable assumption they are going to come under attack.
The conflicting stories were further muddled by witness statements. A witness called by prosecutor Sherry Caloia corroborated Kirkpatrick’s story on a key point. Witness Steve Aurand said he was sitting in his vehicle near the site of the confrontation and saw the cyclist go to the window and “egg on” the driver. However, he said, “the pick-up driver took the first swing.”
But two witnesses for the defense, Mary Wheeler and Butch Darden, insisted the cyclist was the aggressor.
“It was literally like watching a 2-year-old have a temper tantrum,” Darden said. “This was a guy who had just totally lost it.”
The prosecution’s most damaging moment might have come from one of their own witnesses. Eagle County Deputy Sheriff Gianni Robinson arrived on the scene after the incident to assist Basalt police officers. He didn’t witness any of the event but he offered his assessment based on listening to interviews on the scene with Friel and Kirkpatrick. He said he felt the cyclist “would have been the aggressor” and that Kirkpatrick took matters into his own hands after he felt he was endangered by the motorist.
Basalt police Sgt. Penny Paxton testified she felt there were grounds for disorderly conduct citations, a petty offense, for both men. The traffic offenses were later added against Friel.
The jury deliberated for just under an hour before returning with the split decision. Caloia told Judge John Collins she hoped the conviction would send a message that cyclists have a right to the road. She said Basalt’s traffic code is being altered so that it matches state law – requiring motorists to give bicycles 3 feet of space while passing.
Friel was fined $88 and received a four-point violation on his driving record for the conviction of careless driving.
After the trial, Kirkpatrick was contrite before his sentencing for disorderly conduct. He acknowledged that the incident got out of hand. “I felt provoked, and I provoked him,” he said.
Caloia suggested that Kirkpatrick face the same fine as Friel. “I believe there was sufficient provocation here to explain his actions,” she said.
Collins noted that Kirkpatrick was cooperative in his court hearings, admitted wrongdoing and seemed genuinely sorry about his role in the incident.
“I’ll tell ya, the court appreciates your honesty,” Collins said.
Kirkpatrick was fined $88. The disorderly conduct conviction won’t go on his permanent record if he avoids trouble over the next six months.
The case was the first jury trial in Basalt Municipal Court in at least 10 years, court officials said.