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Man killed in Sebastopol crosswalk enjoyed frequent walks

Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 8:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 at 7:36 a.m.

The man who died Wednesday evening after being hit by a car in a Sebastopol crosswalk was a fixture on the West County Regional Trail, where he'd wave or say hi to passers-by on his slow evening walks.

Frederic Ernst, 69, was apparently on one of those walks and headed home at about 7 p.m. Wednesday when he was struck in a crosswalk on Healdsburg Avenue by a westbound Ford Focus, Sebastopol police said. He died in the impact.

The crash occurred as Ernst was crossing Healdsburg Avenue headed toward Murphy Avenue, where he lived. Healdsburg Avenue is part of Highway 116, the main route through town.

Police identified the woman driving the Ford as Ajatha Bollmannwytema, 75, of Occidental. She was headed west at the time, returning home after shopping in Sebastopol. After striking Ernst, she stopped and became extremely distraught, so officers weren't initially able to interview her, Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.

She was still distraught Thursday, said Sgt. Greg DeVore. Officers called the county's law enforcement chaplaincy program to provide assistance to her and she was taken home Wednesday, Weaver said.

On Thursday, she showed up at the police station with a friend before police reached out to her.

“She's having a very difficult time now,” DeVore said. She was not physically hurt in the crash, he added.

DeVore said he is still in the process of investigating the case, including interviewing four or more witnesses to determine what caused the collision and who is fault.

“We're nowhere near being able to talk about a cause,” he said.

Bollmannwytema's car was taken as evidence. Officers also took a blood sample to determine whether she was impaired at the time, although DeVore said he doesn't suspect that was the case.

Police are looking into whether sunlight might have been a factor, given the time of day when the collision occurred and the fact that Bollmannwytema was driving into the sunset.

Ernst, a Sebastopol resident, was a kind but reclusive man who never married and mostly kept to himself, said his younger brother, Bill Ernst of Portland, Ore. “He never quite found his place in this world,” Bill Ernst said.

Ernst walked with a distinctive shuffle because he had Parkinson's disease, which he had for about five years, his brother said.

However, he loved walks and being in the wild.

Frederic Ernst regularly walked the West County Regional Trail, which parallels a stretch of Highway 116. Mathew Rose, who lives on Healdsburg Avenue near the intersection where the crash occurred, said he often saw Ernst out for evening walks. The two only knew each other by sight, but Ernst always gave a friendly wave, Rose said.

Sebastopol resident Christine Case walked with Ernst most Mondays. She used to date Ernst and said she was probably his best, possibly his only, friend. He moved to Sebastopol in 2005 because she lived there, even though their romantic relationship had ended.

In addition to walking, Ernst loved contra dancing and doing yoga before Parkinson's disease made the activities too difficult, she said. He looked for ways to help others and attended a group that studied “A Course in Miracles,” a book about spirtuality.

“He was very kind, and in his thoughts he always tried to think the best of others,” Case said.

Karl Frederick, a Sebastopol resident and poet, first met Ernst about a dozen years ago through a singles group that got together for different West County outings. He didn't know Ernst well, but would see him occasionally on the trail — including Tuesday, the day before Ernst died. He was a slender man who shuffled slowly but surely down the path, Frederick said.

Frederick recalled crossing the same stretch of road at Murphy Avenue just 45 minutes before Ernst was struck.

“I was rather cautious crossing the intersection, even with the blinking yellow lights on,” he said. “You could tell that the sun was in the eyes of anyone coming up the hill (from Sebastopol).”

DeVore urged pedestrians to make sure a car is stopping before walking into a crosswalk.

“People activate the blinking lights and think it's an invisible force field,” he said, emphasizing that it's not yet clear whether that was a factor in this crash. “That can be a fatal error.”

You can reach Staff Writers Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 and jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com and Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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