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The Explainer: The doctor, the lawyer and the forgiving soul

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Dec. 23, 2010
  • Updated Dec. 27, 2010 at 7:25 AM EDT

Q.Dear Explainer,
Despite disagreeing on your final conclusion, your coverage of the hit-and-run case in Colorado has been thorough and I appreciate that.

The whole mess reminded me that VeloNews has had some other stories over the past couple of years and I was wondering about the status of some of those. Whatever happened to the crazy doctor who tried to kill the two cyclists in California? What is the status of that other case in Colorado, the one in which the lawyer hit a cyclist — who was also a lawyer?

Finally, I want to say that I strongly disagree with your conclusion that a boycott of the community of Vail, Colorado, would not be an effective way of sending a message that the light sentence (Martin) Erzinger received was entirely inappropriate. I personally think it would do a lot. I usually find your column to be well-researched and informative, but you were downright hesitant on that front. What gives? If not Vail, who then?
– Leonard

A.Dear Leonard,
I was surprised to realize that it’s been more than a year since Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson was convicted of assaulting two cyclists with his car in Mandeville Canyon, near Los Angeles, California.

The bad doctor

Bad Move: Thompson had hoped to teach cyclists a lesson. He then got an education.

The facts of that case are even more disturbing than those surrounding the recent Erzinger case. Thompson, who’d had a history of sometimes-violent encounters with cyclists, was charged with slamming on his brakes in an attempt to “teach a lesson” to riders he said were interfering with the flow of traffic near his home. While no one has raised the question of actual malice in the Erzinger case, Thompson was found to have intentionally used his car as a weapon in the incident and was found guilty of six felonies and a misdemeanor.

Sentenced in January, Dr. Thompson is serving a five-year term as an inmate at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, inmate No. AC3141 was admitted on January 28 of this year. For obvious reasons, his medical license has also been suspended, although the 61-year-old former emergency-room physician may request its reinstatement when he’s released.

As many criminal defendants are inclined to do, Thompson has appealed his conviction. Indeed, he filed an initial notice of appeal within a couple of weeks of his sentencing. The appellant’s opening brief was submitted to the California Appellate Court in November of this year and the response brief from the state attorney general’s office is due on January 3. Depending on the court’s docket, we could expect oral arguments as soon as February.

We’ll try to keep track of that one.

The bad lawyer … and the forgiving lawyer

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, the case of Jeffrey Detlefs, an Evergreen attorney, offers up some interesting insights. In August of 2009, Detlefs had downed a few drinks at his home in the mountains west of Denver and then thought it a good idea to load his 11-year-old twin daughters and his 8-year-old son into the car for a drive to the local Walmart to buy school supplies.

While making a turn from a frontage road onto Interstate 70, at a speed estimated to be about 65mph, Detlefs hit cyclist Rex Hegyi — himself a public defender in Jefferson County — launching him 120 feet from the point of impact. Remarkably, Hegyi survived the impact, although he suffered a punctured lung, a broken pelvis, a broken arm and fractures in five vertebrae and all of his ribs.

Jeffrey Detlefs: Bad dad, bad lawyer, bad guy... but he looks good in orange!

Unfortunately, for Detlefs, one other thing that broke was his front license plate holder. As he panicked and sped away with three frightened and screaming children in the back seat of his car, he left his license plate at the scene of the crime. His three children persuaded their father to return to the scene and Detlefs briefly stepped out of his car to see whether Hegyi was receiving treatment.

He then drove toward his home, but was observed by police who then tried to stop him. He continued to drive and police followed him into his driveway. A subsequent breathalyzer test showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.302, about three-and-a-half times the legal limit.

Since Hegyi was a public defender in Jefferson County, where the crime occurred, the district attorney asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to the case. It was aggressively prosecuted by the Denver District Attorney’s office. Unlike DA Hurlbert, prosecutors from Denver apparently didn’t give a rat’s … errr … well, let’s just say they did not take Mr. Detlef’s future career prospects into consideration.

Detlefs, was originally charged with two felony counts of vehicular assault, a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in serious bodily injury (the dropped felony charge in the Erzinger case), three counts of misdemeanor child abuse and a traffic offense for attempting to elude the police that caught up with him near his home.

In April of this year, Detlefs entered a guilty plea to one count of vehicular assault, one count of leaving the scene and one count of child abuse. He was sentenced to six years for the assault charge, three years for the charge of leaving the scene and a year’s probation for the child abuse charge. His law license, by the way, was suspended in June.

Done, right? Well, not so fast.

Part of Detlef’s plea allowed for the reconsideration of his sentence after he served just 120 days. At that point, Detlef’s sentence was changed to 10 years’ probation. What?!?! Were prosecutors giving special treatment to a fellow member of the bar? Most of us believed that Detlefs should have been sentenced to more than nine years, let alone to just four months. It was a sentenced that should outrage all cyclists and it did … except for one cyclist, namely his victim.

As I mentioned, Rex Hegyi was employed as a public defender. In the grand scheme of things, Detlefs is lucky that he nearly killed a man who has devoted his legal career to defending those charged with criminal acts.

The light sentence in this case is a direct result of the victim’s input on sentencing. It was Hegyi who asked prosecutors and the court to offer Detlefs the reduced sentence, largely out of concern that his three children shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to grow up in a home with a father.

Rex Hegyi, you're a better man than I will ever be. | Colorado Law Week

Hegyi said he had no hesitation about seeking a reduced penalty in the case.

“It’s what I do for a living, and I’m not going to change that when it happens to me as opposed to when it happens to someone else,” Hegyi told Colorado Law Week in October.

I am in awe.

Hegyi nearly died that day. His injuries were devastating. He spent months slowly recovering at his home in Denver after the incident. He was able to return to work after nearly a year of rehabilitation.

“Things are good with me,” he wrote in an email to me this summer. “I’m back at work, not fully healed, but I’m working on it. I’ve been riding one of my cruisers, a latter-day Trek with a 7-speed rear hub. It doesn’t have baskets, but it could. I can sit so upright it almost feels like I’m walking. I rode 38 miles a couple weeks ago, which was about 18 too far. I’m planning on being back on a decent road bike by the end of the summer.”

Detlefs, meanwhile, is back home with his family. He now lives under supervised probation. He cannot drink. Without Hegyi’s permission, he can’t get a driver’s license for the duration of his probation.

Rex Hegyi is an amazing fellow. He has principles and he lives by them. I’m not sure I’d be able to do what he did.

Unlike the Erzinger case, prosecutors actually took the victim’s views into consideration.

Bad DA, bad broker … but a bad community?

DA Hurlbert: Done in 2012 ... or sooner? | Getty Images

I have to admit a certain hesitancy about calling for an all-out boycott of Vail and the communities surrounding the ski area as a response to the outcome of the Erzinger case. In reading the comments that followed last week’s column, it appears that many of you disagreed with my argument.

First, I want to underscore that my position reflects my opinion and my opinion only. I sure don’t claim to act as a spokesman for the cycling community or even VeloNews. I happen to think that a boycott of the communities in the Vail Valley will bring economic damage to many more people than those that actually deserve it — namely District Attorney Mark Hurlbert and the defendant in this case, Martin Erzinger. Indeed, the story was originally brought to my attention by the owner of a local bike shop in the area. I honestly don’t see a reason why he and others in that local cycling community should suffer the consequences of a boycott. A lot of you disagree and that’s fine.

So, other than a boycott of Vail, what options do you have?

Well, I am a fan of targeted efforts. So, who are the bad guys in this mess? As I’ve said before, aside from Mr. Erzinger himself, the biggest offender in my book is District Attorney Mark Hurlbert. Originally an assistant DA, Hurlbert was appointed to the post of district attorney in 2002, when his boss in that same office was promoted to another position in state government. Twice reelected, he had a relatively easy time of it in both campaigns, easily defeating Democrat Bruce Brown in 2004 and running unopposed in `08.

One could plan on running a strong opponent against a disliked DA in the next election cycle, but Hurlbert is term-limited and won’t be seeking reelection in 2012. If residents of the 5th Judicial District of Colorado, which includes Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties, want to send a message, they have to turn to Article XXI of the Colorado State Constitution:

Every elective public officer of the state of Colorado may be recalled from office at any time by the registered electors entitled to vote for a successor of such incumbent through the procedure and in the manner herein provided for, which procedure shall be known as the recall, and shall be in addition to and without excluding any other method of removal provided by law.

Recall is an option. Even a cursory examination of Hurlbert’s record as a prosecutor shows several incidents in which he has exercised what can politely be described as “questionable” judgment. I would really encourage the cycling community — no, make that the thoughtful community — in District 5 to look to Article XXI and consider whether DA Hurlbert might be offered an early opportunity to change careers.

As for Mr. Erzinger, I only touched upon the possible recourse those with investment dollars might have.

Mr. Erzinger, as I mentioned last week, told the court that “I wake up every day thinking I am going to lose my job.”

Oh, good point. Thanks for the reminder.

Well, that job, as we’ve reported before, is as a broker with the Denver offices of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. He manages a major wealth fund, valued in excess of a billion dollars. His particular fund requires a minimum buy-in of around $5 million, so I’m going to guess that most of us aren’t really going to be able to engage in a direct boycott of that particular fund. Well, at least I can’t.

What we can do, though, is advise institutional investors — retirement funds, charitable groups, unions, universities and those in charge of larger pots of money — that maybe it’s time to consider doing business with firms other than Morgan Stanley Smith Barney as long as they keep that fellow on board.

Sure, Erzinger has a pretty good track record as a fund manager, but sometimes it just isn’t worth doing business with some people. Besides, you might recall that the victim in this case — Dr. Steven Milo — is the son-in-law of an even more successful fund manager, Tom Marsico. Maybe shift your money over there.

That duty to report

Finally, for those keeping track of things like that, Mr. Erzinger — under court order — has finally updated his FINRA-required broker profile to reflect the fact that he was at least charged with a felony. While required to do so within 30 days of a charge being filed — which means it should have been there in September — the update appeared on his BrokerCheck profile for the first time Thursday morning. So now anyone choosing to do business with him can at least see that there has been a criminal event in his past … as if they hadn’t heard of it by now.

– Charles


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question feel free to send your query toCPelkey@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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