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Driver pleads not guilty in Sonoma crosswalk death

An 80-year-old Boyes Hot Springs man pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he killed a man riding a motorized scooter and fled the scene while driving on a suspended license.

Joe Kwai Lee is charged in the Nov. 7 crash that killed Alvin Heese, 93, of Sonoma, who was hit while crossing Fifth Street West.

Neither motorist had a valid license to drive.

Lee, who appeared in the Santa Rosa courtroom, had been free on $50,000 bail but was taken into custody when the judge increased the amount to $75,000.

Judge Robert LaForge set terms for his possible release to include that he not use, possess or drive a car.

"Do you understand that, Mr. Lee?" LaForge asked the elderly man, who listened with a court-supplied hearing device and sat in a wheelchair.

"Yes I do," he said.

Prosecutors expressed concern that Lee drove the day of the crash despite knowing his license was suspended. Lee told officers he had to get to a doctor's appointment, Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said.

Jamar asked that Lee be placed under the supervision of his adult children if he is released. Lee's lawyer, Kathleen Pozzi, called the request unfair since his sons live elsewhere in the Bay Area.

"It's the people's view that Mr. Lee is a danger to the public," Jamar said.

Pozzi said Lee wouldn't drive if he got out of jail. She said the PT Cruiser involved in the crash is impounded, a family member took a second car and three vintage cars parked outside his apartment haven't run in 25 years.

"He's lived here 50 years and is well-known in the Sonoma Valley," Pozzi said. "He has friends who live right around him."

LaForge said he would decide the matter at the next hearing, which was set for Nov. 26.

Rene Lee, a son who lives in Contra Costa County, said his father, a retired video store owner, didn't realize he had hit anyone. He said the intersection is dangerous and the road surface is bumpy. He added his father has an injured arm.

"It's a combination of things," the son said. "They need a stop sign out there in both directions."

An 82-year-old woman was killed in the crosswalk six years ago. The intersection was recently outfitted with mounted flashing lights and an audible warning system.

Heese was hit as he rode the three-wheeled scooter toward a nearby pharmacy and coffee shop. Police arrived quickly and Lee was stopped on Napa Road.

According to the DMV, his license was suspended in July when he failed to respond to an order to determine if he was fit to drive. It was suspended again in October after he failed a driving test, the DMV said. The circumstances of the tests were not clear.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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