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Driver suspected in fatal Santa Rosa hit-and-run crash makes first court appearance


A Santa Rosa real estate agent who has acknowledged being the driver of a car that last week struck and killed a Pacifica man on Montgomery Drive made his first court appearance Wednesday on charges of felony hit and run and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

A grim-faced Steven Harry Heath, 60, declined to enter a plea, and Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite agreed to delay his formal arraignment until March 14. Heath remains free on $20,000 bail.

Heath surrendered to police last Friday but has yet to offer an explanation as to why he drove away in the aftermath of the Feb. 27 crash that took the life of a political science professor named Michael Black.

Heath's defense attorney, Stephen Gallenson, said earlier this week that his client notified him of his involvement the next morning, after reading a newspaper story about the fatal crash a mile and a half from his home near Spring Lake.

Gallenson would not say if Heath claimed to be unaware he had struck a pedestrian prior to reading the newspaper account or if he offered some other reason for not stopping.

Gallenson said Heath might have surrendered earlier had the lawyer not made him wait until he could make a legal assessment of the case.

Then Friday morning — a day and a half after Black's death — Gallenson called police to tell them his client was prepared to surrender and that authorities could find his Mercedes Benz S550, a luxury sedan, parked in the garage of Heath's Pepperwood Road home.

When police seized the car, they found damage to the right front area, Sgt. Rich Celli said.

A Marin County woman who was stopped behind two other cars on Channel Drive trying to turn left onto Montgomery Drive after a school field trip later picked Heath out of a photo line-up, identifying him as the driver of a Mercedes that careened around the corner nearly into her path around the time of Black's death.

Police said Heath would only say he was driving the car at the time of the 1:08 p.m. incident and provided no further information.

At least two of Heath's neighbors near the newer stretch of Pepperwood bordering Annadel State Park, where the homes are valued around $800,000 and up, already were wondering if Heath might have been involved because of witnesses' description of a light-colored Mercedes seen speeding away from the crash scene.

One woman called police after noticing how quiet and closed up Heath split-level house was in the days after the crash. The busy agent was generally seen coming and going multiple times a day, leaving his garage door open in between, neighbors said.

Another neighbor reported Heath's address to a Press Democrat reporter on Friday, who conveyed the information to police. Sgt. Mike Numainville would not say whether detectives already were investigating Heath when he turned himself in.

But others in the neighborhood said they never would have guessed the polished Englishman known to wave and smile on his daily runs would hit someone in his car and not stop.

"Very friendly," said Ashley Samoranski, who lives across the street at the corner of Aleppo Drive. "Very friendly."

"He's a great guy," said a man who lives next door to Heath. "For all of us here, it was a hideous weekend."

Heath, who lost his wife, real estate broker Suzanne Heath, in 2010, runs Steven Heath Real Estate out of his home. His son, Oscar, works with him.

Both routes into the hillside neighborhood require travel on Montgomery Drive, which runs along the North Dam of Spring Lake, a popular parking area for park visitors.

The road narrows significantly farther east, where trees and shrubs are planted close to the road, with a steep hillside rising off the southern edge and the bank along Santa Rosa Creek dropping away below the other. The 40 mph speed limit posted at the nearest intersection remains in effect where the road narrows, city personnel said.

It was in this area that Black, 64, was struck, though his car was parked at the dam almost a mile away. It was not clear if he was in the slim strip of asphalt between the fog line at the edge of the road and the dirt, or if he perphaps had strayed into the lane of traffic.

Some daffodils and candles remained at the spot this week, near widely scattered pink spraypainted evidence markers at the base of a steep driveway.

Residents of the area said it's a perilous stretch of road too dangerous for foot or bike traffic. Aleppo Drive resident Josh Hermsmeyer said he witnessed a crash involving a bicycle some months ago in which the driver tried to flee, but was stopped.

Samoranski, a cyclist and runner, said she just won't go there. "That's my number one rule," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.