Almost a month has passed since 13-year-old Zakkary Mann was rundown on Brayton Drive, a specifically designated “bike route” in Alaska’s largest city, and still his mother, Shana, is no closer to finding the hit-and-run driver.
She has had little help from the Anchorage Police Department (APD).
Marc Grober, an attorney and a longtime safety advocate for the cyclists and pedestrians now lumped together as “vulnerable road users,” contends it’s because the police don’t much care.
A lot of folks have been getting rundown on Anchorage streets in recent years. The hit-and-run drivers are almost never found, and the drivers who remain at the scene seldom face any consequences no matter what happens.
If the police ever were interested in making the streets safer for those vulnerable road users, they now appear to be following the marching orders they got from state prosecutors years ago.
It was bout this time of year in 2008 that 19-year-old cyclist Jonathon Johnson was struck and killed by a motorist who ran a red light at the intersection of 40th Avenue and C Street in midtown Anchorage. APD tried to prosecute that case.
A state prosecutor, however, told a grand jury the case put before it wouldn’t constitute a major crime unless jurors found driver Melissa Rabe was driving under the influence of drugs on that fateful Monday morning.
“At the conclusion of the state’s presentation,” court documents said of the grand juries reaction, “the foreperson asked the prosecutor: ‘If we determine that she wasn’t impaired by THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) but she ran the red light and hit him, what are our options in that regard?’
To which the prosecutor responded: “Well, you have to find that she was criminally negligent then. And if you don’t find that she’s criminally negligent and its just civil negligence, you’ve heard from (APD) Investigator (Steve) Buchta that mere civil negligence results in nothing more than a red light citation, even though you caused the death of an individual by going through a red light.”
In Alaska, criminal negligence requires a “gross deviation” from standard norms, and it’s pretty much the norm in Anchorage for drivers to try to “beat” a yellow light and end up passing through an intersection on the red.
Johnson, who rode into the intersection as the light turned green, fatally discovered that green doesn’t always mean it’s safe to go.
A national attitude
The Johnson treatment of vulnerable road users is not unique to Alaska.
In a country where motor vehicles have come to be considered a necessity and where most motorists believe that driving is a right, not a privilege, those who rundown vulnerable road users often get a pass.
Thirty-two-year-old Farrukh Mushtaq was estimated to have been driving his BMX SUV at more than three times the speed limit when he ran a red light in San Fransico’s SOMA district in 2016 and killed 26-year-old cyclist Katherine Slattery, a mechanical engineer working at Solar City, a start-up energy company later acquired by Tesla.
Mushtaq didn’t bother to stop, but good samaritans managed to chase him down after the collision and hold him until police arrived. He was then charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, misdemeanor hit and run, and felony hit and run, writes Susan Dyer Reynolds at the Gothamist.
Mushtaq, who claimed he was innocent because “God was driving,” spent 16 days in jail before working out a plea deal that set free a man who, according to records, sped away from a strip club at more than 80 mph after his wife showed up to confront him about his cocaine snorting and prostitute chasing.
Mushtaq’s punishment was to be put on probation for three years.
Even the San Francisco Police Officers Association was upset about that outcome and posted this on its Facebook page:
“So what happens if you spend your day snorting coke, dropping $$ on hookers & at the Strip Club, then you get busted by your wife, speed off @ 80 MPH, mow down and kill a cyclist and flee? 16 days in jail for time served when Chesa Boudin is your DA.”
Slattery was a well-educated, white woman from Wisconsin, the sort of individual for whom law enforcement in this country usually tries to find justice.
Johnson was a young, Alaska Native man from Emmonak. Nobody even bothered to protest the handling of his case.
Victim blaming is a common response to the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists in a city where it is generally believed no one should travel anywhere except in a motor vehicle.
Shana Mann learned this the hard way after she turned to local television station KTUU to plead for public help in identifying the driver who left her son on the pavement of Brayton Drive bloody, bleeding and broken on the evening of Sept. 10.
Some people commenting on the story quickly blamed Zackkary for being out too late, not wearing high visibility clothing and mainly being on the service road that offered the best route from South Anchorage’s Get Air Trampoline Park to his home less than a mile north.
“I was never out of the house past 830 and that was in a small neighborhood let alone a very busy street next to a highway lesson learned you should’ve been home,” another added.
The designated “bike route” on which Zackkary was struck is not a “busy street,” let alone a “very busy street” though it does approach the former during commuting hours in the morning and afternoon.
Most of the time, however, it looks like it looks in the photo above.
Despite being recognized as “bike route,” the road lacks designated bike lanes and sidewalks, but then it really shouldn’t need them. Brayton is a straight, two-lane, one-way service road with excellent sight lines and at night is partially lit by the lights that line Seward Highway just to the west.
These things make it an easy place to see what or who is on the road ahead and provide plenty of room to avoid running into anything or anyone. Simply put, Zakkary and two friends picked about the safest possible route for a cyclist from the trampoline park to his home.
And yet, it’s not safe.
Four years before Zakkary was hit, 38-year-old Kasey Turner was run down and killed on the same road.
At that time, an APD spokeswoman blamed “visibility and road conditions” for his death and explained to the ADN that “Turner was partially in the roadway and not on a sidewalk, and he was wearing dark clothing.
“Pedestrians should always utilize sidewalks or keep as far away from the main road as possible.”
The driver of the pickup who hit Turner was not identified. Drivers never are in APD reports to the media.
APD added that no charges had been filed against the driver, but an investigation was underway. That too is standard APD boilerplate. If these investigations actually ever get done is unknown.
APD, which is highly active on social media, has never revealed the outcome of any other than those involving “impaired” drivers. The agency doesn’t appear to have tried to charge a sober drive for killing a pedestrian or cyclist since the Johnson case.
APD’s public efforts to find the driver who left Zakkary on the pavement with a broken leg and a broken collarbone appear to have been minimal, as well, though Shana said authorities found at the scene a hood ornament that confirmed the boy had been hit by a Mercedes as the two friends riding with Zakkary at the time suspected.
The black or dark-collard vehicle also left its driver’s side view mirror at the scene of the crash before speeding off Brayton onto Academy Drive. Shana says she is still hoping for help from the public in finding that car.
“I knew I would get way more help from people in Anchorage that know that area or who cares about this stuff because it is really getting out of hand with people and their disregard for another person’s life,” she messaged.
“(Alaska has) changed since I was a kid in the ’90s and ’90s, too….If I had known how bad Anchorage got when I moved back here from Oregon six years ago, I probably wouldn’t have come here.”
Shana suspects the driver who slammed into Zakkary “was probably someone who had been drinking. But they knew they hit my son. They took off and saw my son’s friend trying to run after the car after it hit him.”
All of that is pure speculation, and there are other possibilities.
The friends riding with Zakkary said the Mercedes veered toward him before the collision, and nationally there are regular reports of hostile drivers veering toward cyclists to express their displeasure at sharing the road.
“It seems like there’s more and more animosity… towards cyclists. And people are getting more and more, I guess, aggressive,” Mark Gringle, a 60-year-old cyclist who suffered a brain bleed, a punctured lung, a broken shoulder, collarbone and pelvis plus nine broken rib after being assaulted by a road-raged motorist near Seattle told his local newspamer in August. “It seems to be OK with a lot of people – they talk about it at parties, ‘Oh yeah, I hate those cyclists’ which makes people want to do things like get too close to them.”
Gringle made the mistake of flipping the bird at the driver of a vehicle that close-passed him on a deserted, two-lane with plenty of room for a safe pass, but it doesn’t always take such a minor aggravation to put cyclists in the hood-sights of drivers.
In one of the country’s highest profile cases, a Texas teenager is now facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon for “rolling coal” on a group of cyclists with the family pickup before mowing six of them down.
With bodies then scattered along the roadway, the Houston Chronicle reported in November, “the driver stopped and spoke with responding (police) officers, but left the scene without charges or a citation, incensing local bike advocates and spurring a war of words between Waller District Attorney Elton Mathis and Waller Police Chief Bill Llewellyn over how the incident was initially handled.”
In many parts of the country, it doesn’t seem to take much in terms of connections to get local law enforcement agencies to treat injuries or deaths to vulnerable road users as minor matters.
Anchorage is probably to be commended for at least making a show of trying to find hit-and-run drivers when such people are struck. The agency twice last month sent out social media posts containing stop light photos of vehicles involved in hit-and-run collisions with vulnerable road users downtown.
The first involved a 2004 to 2007, silver-colored Volkswagen Touareg that hit a pedestrian in late August, the second a “white sedan” that hit a cyclist in early September. (The Nixle links here provide some more information on the vehicles and instructions on how to report any suspect vehicle.)
Both accidents were reported to have left vulnerable road users with “life-threatening injuries,” but there have been no subsequent reports as to whether they lived or died.
Police have released no photos of the Mercedes that hit Zakkary if such photos exist. Most stoplights in Anchorage are now outfitted with traffic cameras, and there appears to be one on the stoplight at O’Malley Road and the Seward Highway that might have captured an image of someone using the main entrance to one-way Brayton Drive.