Rio Nido man 'person of interest' in bike fatality that killed UC Berkeley chief counsel

A bike rider killed in a Sunday morning hit-and-run crash near Guerneville was identified Monday as Christopher Patti, the widely respected 59-year-old chief campus counsel for UC Berkeley.

CHP officers were still looking Monday night for the driver of the black BMW that struck Patti on the shoulder of Highway 116.

An investigation Sunday identified Jonathan Ritter, 28, of Rio Nido and Monte Rio as a person of interest, said CHP Officer Jon Sloat. Officers are seeking Ritter to talk to him about whether he was driving the vehicle.

Patti’s loss was felt deeply on the Berkeley campus, where he worked for nearly a decade.

“I speak for the Berkeley community in saying how grief-stricken we are at Chris Patti’s untimely death,” said Chancellor Carol Christ in a campus news release. “He was smart, he was compassionate. We offer our sympathy to his family and his friends for this tragic loss.”

A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia School of Law, Patti had worked as UC Berkeley’s top lawyer since 2010, representing the campus in numerous high-profile legal matters.

Prior to his role at Berkeley, he worked for 20 years in the general counsel’s office at the University of California Office of the President, the Oakland headquarters of the 10-campus UC system. ?Patti was described by UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof, who had known Patti since the day Patti arrived on campus, as “a rare human” and an “amazing partner” revered for his intellect and skills in analysis, communication and management. Patti’s death triggered “a shock wave that’s been spreading through campus” since he was identified as the victim of Sunday’s hit-and-run, Mogulof said.

“You could not find anybody who would have a negative word to say about him,” Mogulof said. “He was wise and whip smart and empathetic with people. He was patient. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He came to work with amazing energy every day. He cared deeply about what he did and doing what he did in the best possible way. He was a great boss to those who worked with him. He was an incredible colleague.”

Patti’s role at UC Berkeley made him an integral component of the administration’s handling of a wide range of affairs, including the swirling free speech debate on the campus that has become a flashpoint for at times violent conflict between right- and left-wing groups.

As that debate heated up in advance of a day of more rallying and protesting Sunday, Patti was in near-constant contact with Mogulof, sending daily, sometimes hourly phone calls and late-night or early-morning emails.

“He was involved in every single significant issue facing the campus that had any connection to the law,” Mogulof said. “Just the support he’s been giving to the chancellor and campus leadership about free speech - he was a real expert in the First Amendment and related law. ... It sends a shiver down everybody’s spine to think about confronting what lies on the road ahead without him here at our side.”

Charles Robinson, the UC system’s general counsel and vice president of legal affairs, first met Patti some three decades ago when they were both “baby lawyers” at a large corporate law firm in San Francisco. The two became friends, and their career paths crossed again in 2007, when Robinson started his current role and Patti was still working in the UC president’s office.

Robinson called Patti a brilliant lawyer who was very often the smartest person in the room, though he never went out of his way to prove it, and adept at delivering difficult legal advice.

“If people didn’t like the advice they were receiving - they wanted to go in a direction that Chris thought was not the right direction - he was able to deliver that kind of advice in a way that allowed people to feel as if they’d been heard,” Robinson said. “He was one of the best lawyers I’ve ever encountered.”

Beyond his legal skills, Patti’s personal interests included cycling, music, cooking, art and photography, Robinson said.

After one cycling trip with him to Point Reyes about 10 years ago, Robinson remembered “barely being able to walk” afterward. Patti may have had plans to potentially enter some cycling races in the future, according to Robinson.

Patti is survived by his wife, Jocelyn Larkin, and sons Vincent and Gabriel.

Sunday, Patti, who apparently was riding alone, had stopped about 8:45 a.m. on a wide shoulder of a Highway 116 curve, just west of Guerneville. He was about 20 feet from the edge of the roadway, looking at his phone, when the westbound BMW driver apparently lost control on the curve and slid into him, witnesses told officers.

The cyclist was knocked up and over the vehicle. Skid marks show the driver was moving “at a pretty good rate of speed” when he hit the rider, and the fact that the BMW slid that far into the shoulder was an indication of reckless driving, Sloat said.

“(Patti) was well off the road. He should have been safe,” said Sloat.

It looked like the cyclist had been thrown 100 feet, said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who responded and found Patti had died in the impact. The bike also was knocked some ways from where Patti had been standing with it.?Several drivers stopped to try and help.

Witnesses told officers the BMW driver kept heading west, then doubled back heading east, driving past the crash. Officers found the BMW abandoned in Rio Nido.

Officers spoke to the BMW’s registered owner and others, who identified Ritter as the possible driver, Sloat said.

Anyone who saw the crash or knows the whereabouts of Ritter is asked to contact officers at 707-588-1400.

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