A series of stunning revelations unfolded Wednesday about the medical condition and driving record of a Rohnert Park man charged with mowing down a bicyclist and driving away from the scene, an incident that has galvanized Sonoma County's bicycling community.
Robert Cowart, 68, made his first court appearance Wednesday in the felony hit-and-run case, shambling down the aisle steered by one of several lawyers. He appeared unsteady and unsure as the judge and attorneys discussed his case.
Among the unexpected disclosures were three prior drunken driving convictions, two in 1989 and one in 2005, as well as a recent stroke and an aneurysm that may be impairing blood flow in his brain, defense attorney George Boisseau said.
Threatened with higher bail, Cowart's attorney said his client needs to remain out of custody so he can address his medical issues. It was unclear when the stroke occurred. He said Cowart no longer drinks.
Cowart left court in a wheelchair, pushed by a man who first placed Cowart's hands, one by one, in his lap. He was surrounded by attorneys and family members who have steadfastly declined to comment on the case or on his health.
Cowart's infirmity was a shock to the dozens of local cyclists and friends who converged on the courthouse in support of victim Steve Norwick, a retired Sonoma State University environmental studies professor.
"I'm still digesting," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and a longtime friend of Norwick's. "It's unbelievably horrible. It's tragic on both sides."
"There's clearly more going on than we can understand," said Sandra Lupien, the coalition's outreach director, "and it's also clear that he probably shouldn't have been driving. It's very sad."
It remains unclear if Norwick will recover from his injuries. The 68-year-old was struck from behind on Friday as he rode south on Petaluma Hill Road to meet with friends for breakfast.
Norwick suffered major head trauma and remains in a coma at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where his wife and two daughters have kept vigil.
Vin Hoagland, another retired SSU professor who usually accompanies Norwick on the Friday rides, said he's been told there is about a 10-day window during which the prognosis for someone in Norwick's condition should become more apparent.
"Steve is a strong guy," he said, holding out hope for improvement.
Though the driver who hit Norwick never stopped, witnesses described a champagne-colored pickup. A sheared-off sideview mirror left at the scene helped investigators identify the truck as a Dodge.
Cowart was arrested Friday afternoon when he returned home to his Rohnert Park neighborhood. Two neighbors, both off-duty law enforcement officers, noticed the missing mirror and front-end damage on his truck and realized it matched the description of the pickup sought in the hit-and-run.
Authorities said Cowart acknowledged hitting a bicyclist and later told investigators he kept on driving after the 8:37 a.m. crash because he was late to work and the rider did not appear to be badly hurt.
He is charged with leaving the scene of an accident causing great bodily injury or death, a felony charge that could earn him a maximum four years in state prison, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.
He remains free from jail after posting bond for $30,000 bail and was ordered to return to court Monday morning for continued arraignment and entry of plea.