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A 16-year-old driver, who drove into a group of triathletes and cyclists after attempting to blast them with exhaust while they were on a training ride outside Houston, Texas back in September, was charged today with aggravated assault.
“Today we have filed six felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against the juvenile in question, one charge for each cyclist that was injured,” the Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis announced in a statement.
“Thanks to the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety for their assistance in seeking justice for these individuals. 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,” said Mathis.
The group of cyclists and triathletes were out riding on Sept. 25, in preparation for Ironman Texas, and were about 70 miles into their ride, near Waller, Texas outside of Houston, when the juvenile driver attempted to “roll coal” on them—a practice in which the driver purposely accelerates and uses an augmented exhaust system to blow black exhaust smoke. It can be used as a technique to harass people on the road or to engage in a form of pollution protest.
“It’s pretty common,” said Khurram Khan, a friend of the cyclists who didn’t join the ride that day, but started a GoFundMe to help them with their expenses after they were hit. “There’s black smoke in your face and you have to breathe it in.”
According to eyewitness accounts, the driver first blew smoke on a cyclist behind the group and then sped up in an attempt to accelerate and roll coal on the group, but instead was unable to slow down and plowed into the riders.
Six of them were taken to the hospital, with two having to be airlifted out.
According to Rachael Maney, of Bike Law, who is one of the lawyers representing the cyclists, the injured riders suffered traumatic brain injuries, broken backs and collar bones, multiple other bone fractures, soft tissue injuries, muscle tears, road rash, lacerations, and contusions amongst other things. “Of course those are just some of the physical injuries,” she said.
Khan said the six are in the process of recovering, but “I think it’s going to be a long road to recovery.” He noted some have ongoing concussion issues and one of the injured, a close friend of his, passed out after getting home and had to return to the hospital because of broken lumbar vertebrae (which caused the passing out).
The incident sparked outrage because police allowed the driver and his 17-year-old passenger to leave the scene and did not follow with an arrest. After the incident drew widespread attention, police were then criticized for their handling of the case. Heated words went back and forth as D.A. Mathis, in public statements to local news agencies last month, argued the police department should have treated the scene as a crime scene and done a more thorough investigation.
“This case was not handled appropriately by the investigating agency. PERIOD,” he wrote at the time. “All sides of this matter (the juvenile, the adult passenger, their families, the victims and their friends and families) can be assured that this case is not being swept away as the days pass, and attorneys for both boys are being cooperative at this time,” he wrote. “This will not be a lynching and likewise, it will not be a case of small county politics making problems just go away.”
Today’s announcement then came after a six-week investigation from the D.A.’s office, which took over and appointed its own special prosecutor on the case. “We very much appreciate the patience of the victims and their attorneys as we have attempted to reconstruct the events, and to assess and gather the evidence that was not obtained that day,” Mathis said in today’s statement.
Mathis noted the juvenile voluntarily turned himself in earlier this morning and will be held by the juvenile justice department before being tried in juvenile court. Texas has strict laws around juveniles being criminally charged.
“I have trained for and competed in half-Ironman races, so I am familiar with sharing the road with vehicles and both sides of the argument,” said lawyer Rick DeToto, who is representing the defendant. “However, this young man did not intend to hit the riders. He stopped immediately, attempted to render aid, and fully cooperated with police.”
Maney takes issue with a number of DeToto’s statements, noting it is not clear what the juvenile driver did to render aid or if he immediately called 9-1-1. It is, however, agreed he did not leave the scene until after being allowed to by police, and likely only intended to blow smoke at the cyclists.
However, said Maney, the driver still used a large vehicle to almost kill six people “with his reckless and violent behavior behind the wheel.” And that is what was taken to a grand jury last week, leading to these indictments.
From here, the case will work its way through the Waller County justice system. For the six riders, they could also eventually receive some financial compensation for their damages, costs, and ongoing pain and suffering, either from insurance or from a potential civil case, though it’s a long and slow process, said both Maney and Khan. And the recovery process is still ongoing as well, said Khan, both for the riders and for the community that feels in danger.
“I, personally, am not mad or angry,” said Khan, though he said he has been more nervous riding lately, “but people need to accept that it’s OK for other people to be out there enjoying their lives not in a car. There’s no reason to be mad or get their anger out on all the cyclists.”
This article covers an ongoing incident, and will be updated as more information becomes available.