Sonoma man, 93, killed in hit-and-run crosswalk crash
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 7:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.
A 93-year-old Sonoma man was struck in a crosswalk and killed in a hit-and-run crash Wednesday while attempting to traverse the busy street on his motorized scooter.
The suspected driver, an 80-year-old Boyes Hot Springs man, had recently lost his license because he failed a driving test, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Joe Bick Kwai Lee was arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run with death, vehicular manslaughter and driving with a suspended license, authorities said.
Alvin Hesse, a World War II veteran and longtime KRON television employee who lived in senior housing nearby, died after he was struck as he crossed Fifth Street West on his motorized, three-wheeled scooter, police said.
The crosswalk — the same one where an 82-year-old woman was killed six years ago — had recently been outfitted with mounted flashing lights and an audible warning system, Police Chief Bret Sackett said. It also has flashing lights embedded in the pavement, he said.
But Lee told police he did not see anyone in the crosswalk, though he eventually acknowledged feeling a shudder in his steering wheel and thought he’d run over some debris, the chief said.
“He said he kind of heard it and then felt it in the steering wheel, but he looked in the rear view mirrors and didn’t see anything,” Sackett said.
Hesse’s caretaker and longtime friend, Jack Seuberth, said Hesse had been heading toward the Safeway across from Studley Street and was destined for a CVS pharmacy and coffee shop a few blocks away, where the two were supposed to meet for coffee.
Hesse used the scooter because he had difficulty walking, but was otherwise in great health and enjoyed being independent, Seuberth said. The three-wheeler was equipped with a tall, orange flag to improve Hesse’s visibility, he said.
Seuberth, who was nearby in his car on Studley Street, heard sirens shortly after the 3:53 p.m. crash and immediately feared something had happened to his friend.
“I’ve worried about that crossing there so many times, and he was very cautious about it when he did go by there,” Seuberth said. “Evidently that guy — whoever hit him — came and went. He didn’t even see him, evidently.”
Police officers were on the scene quickly while others fanned out in search of a silver PT Cruiser matching the one involved in the crash.
A similar vehicle with front-end damage was stopped on Napa Road at Burndale Road, where Lee denied having been in a crash, Sackett said. But during follow-up investigation, he acknowledged having run over something, though he apparently hadn’t realized it was a person, police said.
Lee also made statements acknowledging the suspension of his license, Sackett said.
He was arrested and booked into the Sonoma County Jail overnight, but was in the process of posting bond for $50,000 bail on Thursday afternoon, jail personnel said.
A DMV representative said Lee was referred to the agency in July for re-examination, a process designed to determine if someone is still fit to drive.
It was unclear how or by whom he was referred. Reexamination can be initiated by law enforcement, medical personnel, family members, friends or neighbors, or triggered by specific circumstances such as multiple accidents or reckless driving, the DMV said.
But Lee apparently failed to respond for re-examination within the requisite five days, though he was notified verbally of the requirement, authorities said. His driver’s license was suspended July 28, authorities said.
His license was re-suspended Oct. 16 after Lee failed a driver’s test, though it was unclear precisely when the test was given, a DMV representative said.
The incident comes amid widening concerns about elderly drivers in the wake of several recent accidents involving senior citizens.
They include an Oct. 27 accident in which a 92-year-old driver struck two 14-year-old boys on Fifth Street West at Curtin Lane — not even two blocks away from where Wednesday’s crash occurred, in a crosswalk also marked with flashing lights.
The driver in that incident, Sonoma resident Levon Arkelian, similarly denied having struck anyone, though his car and windshield had been damaged.
The Studley Street crosswalk is the site where an 82-year-old woman, Anna Marie Simmons, was struck and killed on June 11, 2006.
Another woman, Beatriz Villanueva, 51, died when she was struck there by a 78-year-old woman on Valentine’s Day 1996.
The reconfiguration of the street during the past year included adding a center turn lane and reducing north and southbound traffic to one-lane each, Sackett said. But with bicycle and parking lanes on each side, it remained a wide street, he said.
Hesse was about 10 or 15 feet from the curb when he was struck in the southbound lane. He died later at Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa.
Born and raised in Washington state, Hesse as a young man rented a room in San Francisco from Seuberth’s parents and worked at KRON TV for 28 years, retiring at 65. He moved to Sonoma in 1988.
He was never married and had no children, Seuberth said.
Hesse had studied art and creative writing in college. He loved theater and reading, especially about “show biz,” Seuberth said. He wrote stories and plays in his youth.
Except for some joint problems, Hesse was in very good health and had maintained his mental acuity, Seuberth said.
At a recent doctor’s appointment, he asked his physician how long he could expect to live.
“The doctor said, ‘Well, three digits,’” Seuberth said. “And he thought he’d live to be 100.”
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