Driver sentenced in
By Leah Quin American-Statesman Staff
Published: Jan. 29, 1999
Donna McCorkle tried to protect her oldest son all 23 years of his life. William Sigtryggsson had a learning disability, brought on by childhood epilepsy, that made McCorkle watchful of circumstances that might harm him.
When Sigtryggsson was tormented by schoolmates, she told him that his disability didn't mean he was mentally retarded. When he was old enough to legally drink, McCorkle restricted him to one beer. And she never let him have a driver's license, worried that being on a roadway with other drivers might be too stressful for him.
"He was so trusting," McCorkle said Wednesday. "If you told him the moon was going to fall out of the sky tomorrow night, he'd probably go out and look."
Despite her efforts, McCorkle couldn't save her son. On Nov. 24, 1996, he sneaked out of his home in far south Travis County around 3 a.m. to get a soda from a convenience store. While bicycling along FM 1625, Sigtryggsson was struck by a passing car and died. Another motorist found his body in a ditch several hours later, along with the young man's mangled bicycle, which had a rear reflector but no lights.
Wednesday night, McCorkle held the urn containing her son's ashes as she spoke to the man sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing Sigtryggsson and leaving the accident scene. José Ruiz, 30, pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and failure to stop and render aid in the 1996 crash, but asked for a Travis County District Court jury to assess his punishment.
After four hours, jurors decided on 12 years in prison for the manslaughter charge and five years in prison -- the maximum -- for leaving the scene. The sentences will run concurrently; Ruiz will be eligible for parole in six years.
"In my opinion, it wasn't stiff enough," McCorkle said Thursday. "But I don't want to sound like I'm talking bad about the jury. At least he's not on probation. At least for six years he won't be on the road."
Ruiz, a Mexican citizen who had worked as a welder in Travis County for nearly a decade, was charged a year after the fatal crash. His then-girlfriend, Joba Mendez, who was riding in the passenger seat when the accident happened, called police in 1997 and told them of his involvement. Mendez testified this week that Ruiz was drunk and told her "shut your trap" when she wanted to go back to the scene. He then took a different road to their destination, she testified. A side mirror found at the accident scene matched that of the Toyota Ruiz drove, prosecutors said. Ruiz's attorney, T.J. Biczo, asked the jury for probation, saying the crash was an accident on an unlit rural road involving a cyclist wearing dark clothes and no helmet. Thursday, he said Ruiz was relieved it was over.
"From Day One, he never contested this," Biczo said, referring to Ruiz's statement to police and his guilty plea.
Prosecutor Gary Cobb asked jurors for the maximum penalty, saying Ruiz tried to evade suspicion immediately after the crash by changing his route and would never have come forward on his own.
Cobb said he was pleased with the sentence, especially as jurors often side with drivers involved in collisions with bicycles. "Many of them have bad experiences with bicyclists pulling out in front of them," he said.
Members of bicycle associations said Thursday that sentences like Ruiz's are rare.
"This is just out of sight," said Preston Tyree, education director for the Texas Bicycle Coalition. "The bicycle community in general has been pretty down about a lack of prosecution in cases like these."
Of the 10 auto-bicycle fatalities in Austin since 1995, half were attributed to the cyclist's negligence. One driver was sentenced in Williamson County to 7 1/2 years for manslaughter. One driver was cleared by a grand jury, one is awaiting trial and one case remains unsolved.
Last October, more than 100 bicyclists protested the death of Benjamin Clough, 25, who was killed in downtown Austin by a driver who police said ran a red light. No charges have been filed.
"We've gotten used to being second-class citizens," said Fred Meredith, editor of the Austin Cycling News.
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