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Healdsburg driver on trial in 2016 death of Sebastopol cyclist

Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of a 75-year-old Healdsburg driver charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the 2016 death of cyclist Amy Suyama, who crashed and died during an organized bike ride.

A Sonoma County jury is being asked to decide whether driver Courtney Rudin caused the crash when, to pass a slow-moving truck, he veered into the oncoming lane used by Suyama, 55, of Sebastopol, according to authorities.

The case evoked the worst fears of cyclists who ride Sonoma County’s world-class cycling routes, and it stoked an already contentious public debate about road safety for cyclists and motorists who share narrow, rural roads.

The prosecution must convince the jury that Rudin’s passing maneuver on two-lane Eastside Road caused the fatal crash, whether or not his pickup made impact with the cyclists. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum one-year jail sentence.

“This case is about a mistake,” Deputy District Attorney David Kim said to the jury during opening statements Wednesday afternoon. “It was a mistake for Courtney Rudin to try to make that pass on that narrow road when two cyclists were coming toward him.”

Rudin’s attorney Steve Spiegelman focused his remarks on the eight-month CHP investigation, which he said did not come to a clear determination about whether Rudin’s pickup struck Suyama or her bicycle. He suggested the CHP didn’t fully investigate whether the cyclists - Suyama and her riding partner and boyfriend, Andy Dean - caused their crash.

Rudin was charged with the misdemeanor offense and an infraction for wrongful passing nearly 11 months after the incident.

Spiegelman told jurors he believed there was enough room in the northbound lane, which was 12 feet wide, for the two cyclists and a pickup.

“This was a tragic accident,” Spiegelman said.

Rudin was heading home Sept. 10, 2016, after a morning stop at garage sales and sharing a meal with his wife when he turned from Old Redwood Highway onto Eastside Road about 11 a.m..

Rudin, traveling south, pulled his truck into the oncoming lane to pass the truck in front of him and he saw the two cyclists, according to Kim.

Suyama was 45 miles into the Tour de Fuzz, a charity ride to benefit law enforcement chaplains, heading north on Eastside Road. She was riding behind and slightly to the left of Dean, her cycling partner and boyfriend, according to Kim.

Dean, of Santa Rosa, said in an interview in 2017 that he saw the pickup pull into their lane, then the next thing he knew he was on the ground. Suyama had crashed too, and was unconscious about 20 feet behind him.

Rudin told investigators he noticed the cyclists had crashed in his sideview mirror and pulled over, Spiegelman said. He indicated he may have already been back in the correct lane by the time the cyclists crashed, his lawyer said.

Suyama was briefly alert but then lost consciousness in an ambulance and died outside Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Spiegelman indicated he would show how the CHP failed to fully investigate whether Dean over-reacted to the sight of the pickup truck, hit his brakes and caused Suyama to crash into him. He said the CHP’s investigative report drew no conclusions.

“The investigator couldn’t make any determination,” Spiegelman said.

Both the prosecution and Rudin’s defense attorney began introducing their arguments about whether the evidence - such as a scuff on the pickup’s chrome bumper and what appeared to be a tire tread mark on Suyama’s cycling jersey - shows Rudin’s pickup actually struck Suyama.

CHP investigator officer Nick Herman testified that an analysis of tread marks on Suyama’s bicycle jersey appeared “consistent” with the tire tread pattern and other markings on Rudin’s pickup wheels.

Suyama was a lifelong athlete and had a 30-year career as a produce broker for health food stores. She grew up in Maine and had lived on a rural Sebastopol property for more than three decades.

Three of Suyama’s close friends attended the start of trial Wednesday, including Christine Colgan of Oakland. Colgan said she worked with Suyama in the wholesale, organic produce business for three decades.

She and others close with Suyama were frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, which made it at times feel like Suyama’s sudden, untimely death was being disregarded.

“To have the District Attorney David Kim repeat Amy Suyama’s name, over and over, was so heartwarming to those of us who loved her,” Colgan said. “It was life changing, losing her. She was so incredibly kind, so generous.”

Testimony in the trial continues Thursday afternoon in Sonoma County Superior Court.

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

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