Road Cycling

Waller DA files 6 felonies for ‘rolling coal’ crash that injured 6 cyclists – Houston Chronicle

A teen who struck six cyclists while allegedly blanketing them in black smoke along a Waller County road faces six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“One for each of the people he almost killed with his reckless and violent behavior behind the wheel,” said Rachael Maney, national director for Bike Law Network, which is representing the riders, in a statement.

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis presented the case to a grand jury last week, with the recommended charges.

“Earlier today the juvenile voluntarily surrendered himself, and was detained by representatives from the juvenile justice department where he will be held in custody until further orders of the juvenile court,” Mathis said in a statement.

Because the driver was 16, the charges are filed in juvenile court, but could be elevated to adult court. Charging someone under the age of 17 as an adult requires a process that must be certified by a County Court at Law judge. Mathis did not respond when asked whether prosecutors were seeking to elevate the case to adult criminal court.

Rick DeToto, a Houston lawyer hired by the teen’s parents, said because of the “confidentiality laws surrounding juvenile cases, we have no further comment at this time.”

“My client and his family continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured bikers,” DeToto said.

The six cyclists on a training ride were struck Sept. 25 as they rode with dozens of others along U.S. 290 Business about two miles west of downtown Waller. Four of the injured were taken to area hospitals, two with significant injuries.

“We are happy to report that our clients continue to make advancements, no matter how small, on the long road of physical recovery ahead,” Maney said.

Six bicyclists were injured Sept. 25, 2021, in Waller, Texas, when witnesses say a pickup driver, 16, was intentionally blowing exhaust on them.

Photo courtesy Bike Law Network

The incident, which witnesses and police said happened after the teen intentionally tried to blow diesel exhaust from his large pickup onto the riders, led to widespread outrage at the treatment of cyclists around the area.

Cyclists also were alarmed after police at the scene in the crash report noted the teen was reaching for a cell phone at the time of the crash. Mobile phone use by drivers under 18 is illegal in Texas, unless the teen is using the phone in an emergency.

Maney, speaking for the other lawyers representing the riders, credited local officials for — albeit weeks later — treating the case seriously.

“I believe that … Mathis and special prosecutor Warren Diepraam have done their jobs to deliver what is a real step towards justice given what’s possible and what’s not within the Texas criminal justice system,” Maney wrote. “A system that does not favor people on bikes and generally provides far too much room for police and other prosecutors to endorse the marginalization of cyclists and other vulnerable road users through their historic inaction.”

Many cyclists, including those outside the area as the case drew national attention, heavily criticized local officials for not arresting or charging the teen at the scene and suggested the small-town politics of Waller led to a lax response.

“When law enforcement lets drivers get away with threatening and attacking people on bikes, they send a message that drivers own the road, and that anyone else is merely an obstruction,” said BikeHouston Executive Director Joe Cutrufo.

Mathis dismissed many of those accusations, but stressed the process would not be rushed by criticism. Days after the incident, Mathis said “rolling coal” — as the process of blowing black smoke onto others is called — would be “at a minimum” an assault.Gathering the facts and presenting them to a grand jury, Mathis said, would still take time.

“Anyone could look at this incident and conclude that the driver should have been charged,” Cutrufo said, adding it was a “relief” officials came to the same conclusion.

In addition to any criminal charges, lawyers for the riders previously said they were investigating the possibility of civil lawsuits but were focused on holding the driver responsible and seeing charges brought.

Maney said lawyers and the injured riders had prepared themselves for disappointment, but also remained optimistic.

“What we continue to ask of everyone is an understanding that, even in Waller, when things feel like they’re taking more time than they ‘should,’ the possibility exists that something right and good, not more disappointing ambivalence to justice, is the cause for such delay,” she wrote.

Some signs of optimism emerged for irate riders. Despite pleading for patience, Mathis in mid-October agreed with cyclists and was critical early of Waller Police, which handled the investigation. He said police failed to secure the crime scene and alert prosecutors in a timely manner despite being encouraged to do so.

Waller Police Chief Bill Llewellyn agreed the scene was not secured properly, but pushed back against Mathis, saying attempts to reach prosecutors were unsuccessful.

Mathis on Monday said the case was aided by later investigation, including cooperation of area cyclists and those injured.

“We wish them the speediest of recoveries on their long journey ahead, and remind everyone to share the roads, obey the traffic laws, and to treat each other with the respect that we all deserve,” Mathis said.

The crash comes as Texas is on pace for record roadway deaths, including among bicyclists. With about two months of the year left, 69 cyclists have been killed statewide, just 10 shy of the record 79 killed last year. The slight increase in deaths and serious injuries since 2016 has come as fewer cyclists are in crashes — which experts have said is evidence the severity of collisions is rising.

In the 11-county Houston area, cycling deaths are down from the record high of 34 last year to 25 so far this year. Serious injuries, however, already are higher for 2021 compared to th previous year, jumping from 80 to 84.

Beyond bicycling, Texas is in the midst of a road safety crisis, officials said. Despite pledges in Houston, Harris and statewide to reduce fatalities, deaths along Texas roads are increasing. Officials speculate wide-open roads are leading many to mash on the accelerator.

As a result, Texas’ pre-pandemic average of about 10 deaths per day has jumped for 2021 to about 11.5 deaths daily, said Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.

“When we use those numbers, I want everyone to realize that that is an individual and somebody that is loved,” Ryan said.

Sunday marked the 21st anniversary of the last day in Texas during which no one died in a roadway crash.

dug.begley@chron.com