Bicyclists have been the loudest critics of the hit-and-run epidemic gripping Los Angeles, a crisis that has been ignored by the mayor and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. One chilling incident in Echo Park, in particular, galvanized the bike community: the running down of cyclist Don Ward, also known as Roadblock.
Ward is about as famous as you can get in L.A.'s bike scene because of his 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame and his role as one of the early organizers of Midnight Ridazz, an enormously popular nighttime group ride. He also founded Wolfpack Hustle, which takes high-speed group rides with a somewhat cavalier approach to traffic laws.
“We've described him, half-seriously, as the bike community's James Dean because of his rugged good looks,” says Damien Newton, who runs the website LA Streetsblog. “And he's a little bit of an outlaw.”
In 2009, cycling advocates were getting involved in politics, lobbying for bike lanes — Stephen Box even ran for City Council. But Ward mostly coordinated rides.
That is, until 1 a.m. on May 19, 2009, when a gray Jaguar slammed into him from behind on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, bouncing Ward off the hood — with the mangled bike still attached to Ward due to his clip-on shoes — and catapulting him 50 feet. The Jaguar driver slowed, looked at Ward, then shot off into the night.
“I looked back, there was this car coming really fast,” Ward recalls. “It was scary. It didn't look like the car was in control. I freaked out, just tried to get out of the way.”
As Ward lay on his stomach, he turned his head to watch the Jaguar creep past. That's when he saw the license plate. He began feverishly repeating the numbers aloud.
Before the crash, Ward had been cycling with friends from whom he'd become separated. One of them, Sean Maytum, came upon Ward's body. “I thought he was dead,” Maytum recalls. “He wasn't moving.”
Then Maytum saw his fingers move. Ward was texting. Actually, he was tweeting — the Jaguar's license plate number, of which he clearly remembered the first six digits.
Ward was banged up but would be OK. From the hospital, he posted about his ordeal on a Midnight Ridazz message board, adding: “I will find this motherfucker.”
The next day, Ward called LAPD. He'd already given them a nearly complete plate number, plus the car's color and general description. He was stunned at the disinterest the LAPD investigator showed.
The officer said, “Yeah, it's gonna take a couple weeks to run down the plate. You could try to find the car if you want.”
As L.A. Weekly reported on Dec. 11, in a four-month investigation by Simone Wilson, “L.A.'s Bloody Hit-and-Run Epidemic,” city leaders such as Beck and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are ignoring, or unaware of, the car-as-weapon crisis in this city.
In the United States, 11 percent of all car crashes are hit-and-runs. In L.A., an incredible 48 percent are hit-and-runs. The levels are epidemic — 20,000 hit-and-runs inside the city limits annually.
The mowing down of Don Ward wasn't even a blip in a city where authorities have lost whatever grip they once may have had. But the public is getting angry: Ward's post in 2009 on the Midnight Ridazz message board generated hundreds of responses, including one from DJ Wheels — lawyer Danny Jimenez.
Jimenez had a friend in the California Highway Patrol who took five minutes, not LAPD's two weeks, to “run down the plate.” Of four possible matches, one was a Jaguar registered to Glenn Gritzner, who lived near Silver Lake Reservoir, about two miles from the Echo Park crime scene.
Ward and Jimenez Googled “Glenn Gritzner” and found a blog site where he reviews bars in downtown L.A. The logo: a martini glass. Then their Internet search turned up something shocking: Gritzner wasn't an illegal immigrant fearing deportation, or a laid-off worker without insurance. He's a well-to-do, high-flying lobbyist and political player in City Hall and Sacramento, a managing director of Mercury Public Affairs, a powerful firm whose top partners include former California Speaker Fabian Nuñez and Adam Mendehlson, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mercury is paid by corporate and union biggies to influence California's politicians; its past clients include Wal-Mart, Blue Shield, even the City of Los Angeles.
“We were almost 100 percent sure this was the guy,” Ward recalls. “We were operating on the premise that the cops were gonna do nothing. We had to get evidence.”
They visited trendy downtown bars, including the Edison and the Standard, hoping somebody had seen Gritzner getting hammered. Nothing. They drove by his house. No gray Jaguar.
They finally deduced that a man as successful and connected as Gritzner probably would take his Jag in to repair the damage.
The first place they called was Rusnak, a Jaguar dealer in Pasadena.
“Yeah, I wanna see if my Jaguar's gonna be ready,” Ward said.
“What's your name?”
“Oh yeah, your car's gonna be ready Thursday.”
Ward was tingling. He and Jimenez rushed to Pasadena and found the Jaguar getting a new coat of paint. Its hood and grille had already been replaced.
Friday morning, May 19, at 7 a.m., three days after he'd been mowed down, Ward walked into the LAPD Traffic Division downtown. It reminded him of his dad's garage. “It was fucking dingy — stacks of papers everywhere, old computers.”
Ward thought: “No wonder they're not getting anywhere.”
Ward dropped a stack of papers, and a detective looked through them. “Wow, you did the whole thing for us,” she said, impressed.
In the end, Gritzner didn't pay much for his crime and cover-up. He was charged with “misdemeanor property damage” by the L.A. City Attorney, who couldn't get excited about a hit-and-run in which no bones were broken — that would be a felony. According to Ward, Gritzner only had to pay a $500 fine and pick up trash for 30 days.
Bicyclists have told the mayor, City Council and chief of police that traffic laws are backfiring: If nobody is maimed or left with broken bones, the law imposes a greater penalty on the drunk driver who stops to help than on those like Gritzner, who run, because the runners can't be breathalyzed.
Ultimately, Ward sued Gritzner, and a private settlement was reached.
Gritzner, in an email to L.A. Weekly, called the night he fled “unfortunate and chaotic. Although some of the details of what happened that night might be in question, what's not in question is that I should have stopped the car.” He insists, “I took responsibility for my actions, and paid my debts both legally and financially. I truly regret what happened, and I am thankful every day that no one was seriously hurt.”
“No one was seriously hurt, huh?” Ward says. For more than a year after he was run down, every time a car approached, he was seized with fear. He was afraid to cross the street. He still tries to stick to side streets.
“Don changed from the guy who coordinated late-night bike rides to a powerful advocacy voice,” Newton says.
Ward has urged LAPD to stop recommending that speed limits be increased, as the police routinely do, and to make hit-and-runs a high-priority crime. “Getting people off the road that have committed a hit-and-run is a prevention thing,” Newton says. “Not only are they dangerous drivers — they're callous about it.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.