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Avid cyclist Amy Suyama died seven months ago in a crash involving a passing pickup during an organized bicycle ride, a devastating loss for family and friends that stoked the worst fears among legions who take to Sonoma County’s world-class bike routes.

Those close to Suyama, 55, of Sebastopol and other avid cyclists have been frustrated with the pace of the CHP investigation into the crash that killed her. Suyama, a lifelong athlete, was riding behind her boyfriend, Andy Dean of Santa Rosa. They were three quarters of the way through the 60-mile Tour de Fuzz, a charity ride benefiting law enforcement chaplains held Sept. 10 when the crash occurred on Eastside Road, west of Windsor.

It was nearly 11 a.m., and hundreds of cyclists filled the roads that day, spread out by the ride’s staggered start times.

While investigators initially suspected Suyama crashed because the oncoming pickup made an unsafe pass into her path, a lack of independent witnesses and evidence have made that difficult to prove, said CHP Officer Danny Alconcel, lead investigator on the case. Alconcel said he found no evidence the vehicle made contact with either Suyama or Dean. As the investigation wore on, Alconcel said, it opened up the possibility the 72-year-old pickup driver, Courtney Rudin, had already made the pass and was back in his lane when Suyama crashed into Dean, who may have suddenly slowed reacting to Rudin’s pass.

Rudin told investigators he had already pulled back into his lane when he got close to the cyclists.

“In most collisions, we have evidence, we have damage, we have markings on the roadway, we have points of impact and the evidence backs up the report,” Alconcel said. “In this case, we have not much to work with, and we’ve exhausted the alternatives.”

Another view of the wreck

Dean’s account — shared in a pair of interviews a day after the crash and last week — provides another angle from the road at the time. He said Rudin — who was southbound in a 2004 Chevrolet pickup and near home, according to the CHP — accelerated as he neared the northbound cyclists, sideswiping or nearly sideswiping him near the shoulder of the road and knocking him off his bike.

“I couldn’t go to the left because the truck was there. I couldn’t go to the right because the bushes were there,” Dean said.

The truck had been traveling at about 25 to 30 mph, according to the CHP, and the cyclists at about 18 to 20 mph. The speed limit was 45.

The next thing Dean knew, he was on the ground and Suyama’s bicycle was on top of him. She was on the road about 20 feet behind him. He thinks she crashed into him and may have been struck by the pickup.

Another cyclist was about 300 yards behind them, and he quickly rode up to the crash but didn’t see enough to provide a clear description of what happened, the CHP said.

But there was another person who may have answers.

Rudin, who couldn’t be reached last week, was passing a slow moving truck he had been following for nearly 3 miles, according to the CHP. It was harvest season, a time when trucks hauling grapes and equipment add to the cycling and tourist traffic. Eastside Road where the crash occurred is a narrow route parallel to the Russian River leading through vineyards, near Windsor River Road, a primary connector to Windsor and Highway 101.

Alconcel believes it’s likely the unidentified driver saw the crash. Truck drivers are trained to be aware of their surroundings, and the driver would have a heightened awareness on a narrow road where he’s likely to encounter other trucks and cyclists, he said.

But the truck didn’t stop.

And Alconcel has been unable to track down a driver. He speculated the person is afraid to contact law enforcement for some reason unrelated to the crash. The truck was described both as a tractor trailer and a flatbed with two axles. He contacted wineries up and down the route and trucking companies. No one has come forward.

“You can see a mile back with those mirrors. He would have had a bird’s-eye view,” Alconcel said. “In my opinion, he or she would have been a great source of information.”

Alconcel declined to say what he will recommend to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in his report. He said the investigation is in its final stage and under review by the commander of the Santa Rosa area CHP office. Prosecutors will then make the call as to whether Rudin’s pass was unsafe and caused the crash.

Toll of lengthy investigation

The length of the investigation has been hard on Suyama’s family, her friends and some members of Sonoma County’s broad and vocal cycling community.

Her mother, Virginia Suyama of Bangor, Maine, said she’s concerned her health will fail her before her questions are answered about what happened in the crash. But she wants the investigation to be thorough.

“I’m 93 and I just would like to see it done properly while I’m still around,” Virginia Suyama said.

Amy Suyama was the fifth of six children of her mother and her father, Eji Suyama, a World War II veteran who worked as a surgeon until the year before he died at 89.

Suyama grew up in Maine and had been in Sonoma County more than 30 years, working as a produce broker and living on her property in rural Sebastopol.

Barbara Iannoli, Suyama’s longtime friend who is in charge of her estate, said the lack of information about the investigation has made it seem like not enough was being done. The investigation is also holding up the release of Suyama’s death certificate, a necessary document for her to settle the estate.

“It’s so emotional,” said Iannoli, who said those urging patience ignore the painful loss. “You put somebody you loved dead on that pavement.”

Suyama suffered traumatic injuries from the crash. She briefly regained consciousness but died in the ambulance outside Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Dean, 60, said he’s only ridden a few times since Suyama’s death, and mostly on bike trails. It’s too hard.

“If the CHP report comes out that he wasn’t at fault, then there are no repercussions for him. All the other drivers think they can get away with that,” Dean said. “There are many drivers frustrated with wanting to pass cyclists, and before I started bicycling I was certainly one of them.”

Dean’s view has been echoed by others in the cycling community, and the case has flamed longstanding antagonism between some drivers and cyclists over how to safely share the road.

If no charges come in the case, avid cyclist Bill Carroll of Santa Rosa said in a recent letter to the editor of The Press Democrat, “it is sending a loud message to the community that this kind of driving will be tolerated.”

Jake Bayless, co-founder of Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance, is pressing organizations, from the CHP to the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, to make clear cyclists have a right to safely traverse the road.

“Someone comes into my lane, I’m going to take evasive maneuvers. I’m going to save my life,” Bayless said. “If I go into a ditch because of that and the vehicle doesn’t touch me, it’s not my fault.”

Alisha O’Loughlin, the bicycle coalition’s executive director, said it was a shocking loss even for those who didn’t know Suyama, even more so because it occurred during an organized ride.

“It hit us really hard. It could have been you or someone you know,” O’Loughlin said.

O’Loughlin acknowledged some cyclists are frustrated with the length of the investigation out of a sense drivers don’t respect cyclists’ rights to be out on the roads. The coalition is looking more toward the outcome of the inquiry, whether the findings show the driver was responsible or clear him of any wrongdoing, O’Loughlin said.

Ride of Silence event

The group held a memorial ride for Suyama in November. Nearly 40 riders showed up despite a terrible storm. But the clouds opened up just before the ride and with white flowers pinned to their jerseys, they took to the roads leading to the site where Suyama crashed.

They will roll out again May 17, to take part in a nationally recognized Ride of Silence to honor bicyclists killed by motorists and to promote sharing the road.

“We need to break down those barriers where we identify ourselves as being a cyclist or a driver when the fact of the matter is this could be your parent, this could be your teacher,” O’Loughlin said.

For Dean, the crash and its cause are not complicated. Suyama wouldn’t have crashed if the pickup driver hadn’t entered their lane on the narrow rural road.

“I’m sure it wasn’t malicious, but his actions … the result was Amy’s death,” Dean said.

Alconcel said a cyclist, just like a motorist, has the right to the full lane. Any oncoming traffic, even in a legal passing zone, must cede the right of way.

The challenge in this case, he said, is the lack of evidence showing where Rudin was when he passed the cyclists.

Two months back, a specialized investigation team from Sacramento came to Santa Rosa to go over the case. Alconcel said they spent two hours poring over details to see if the Santa Rosa officers missed anything. They didn’t, he said.

“I can write the report both ways, but I can’t prove either,” Alconcel said. “What actually happened? This is by far the hardest case I’ve worked because we don’t have much to work with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.