News - March 12, 2008

Menlo cyclist confronts driver who struck her

• Walter Sorensen sentenced to eight months in jail for injuring MaryAnn Levenson.

by Dave Boyce

It's been 15 months since the arrest of an intoxicated Hillsborough man whose pickup truck struck Menlo Park resident and bicycle racer MaryAnn Levenson, severely injuring her. The driver, 77-year-old Walter Sorensen, reportedly attempted to leave the scene, but was blocked by another driver's vehicle.

During the months-long interval as she attempted to recover after being dragged 35 feet under Mr. Sorensen's truck and suffering a fractured pelvis, broken vertebrae, shattered larynx, extensively damaged foot and continuing numbness in her lips and her jaw, Ms. Levenson has had plenty of time to prepare remarks.

She delivered on Friday afternoon, March 7, in San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City at the sentencing hearing for Mr. Sorensen, who had pleaded "no contest" in January 2007 to charges that included felony drunken driving.

The hearing was the first time Ms. Levenson has had the opportunity to say anything to him. She addressed Mr. Sorensen before Judge Clifford Cretan sentenced him to eight months in county jail, followed by five years of supervised probation and loss of driving privileges, 300 hours of community service, fines of at least $366,000 and other penalties, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

"I wrote it out, just in case I wasn't able to say it," she told The Almanac. "There was just pure anger. I was not going to give him any tears."

Ms. Levenson's husband, Scott, who was in the courtroom, said his wife called Mr. Sorensen a coward and completely irresponsible, told him how the Dec. 23, 2006, accident had ruined her life and damaged the lives of those around her, how her lips could no longer feel the kisses she gives her sons, how she has to cover her mouth when eating to keep from spraying food, how her voice fails if she talks too loudly or for too long.

No remorse?

Ms. Levenson said that Mr. Sorensen did not apologize and tended to look away as she was speaking to him, an account backed up by her husband and by former Menlo Park mayor and cycling enthusiast Steve Schmidt, who attended the hearing.

Before sentencing, Judge Cretan noted that Mr. Sorensen "did not appear to have any remorse for his criminal conduct," Mr. Wagstaffe said.

Mr. Sorensen had been advised to remain silent, his Palo Alto attorney James Blackman said in an interview. Courtrooms in cases like this one tend to have a lot of anger in the room that can lead to apologies being misinterpreted, Mr. Blackman said, adding that a courtroom is an "artificial" environment and "not a place to share deep emotions."

Was Mr. Sorensen in fact remorseful? "Oh yes. Absolutely," Mr. Blackman said. "He expressed remorse at every opportunity" to probation officers, his attorney, prosecutors, family and friends.

"Some people can verbalize that kind of emotion more effectively than others," he added. Mr. Blackman explained this to the judge, who said he would consider it as another opinion, Mr. Blackman said.

Mr. Levenson remained unconvinced. "Having someone express some feelings, some caring about what happened rather than sitting in your chair and rocking would have been very therapeutic," he said in an interview. "Just the words 'I'm sorry, I made a mistake,' would have been very helpful. He had the last word and he chose not to say anything."

Mr. Sorensen "got what he deserved," Ms. Levenson said in an interview. "I felt like I was the one behind bars, and now he's there. It was such a relief to see him carted off the same day."

At the end of the hearing, Mr. Sorensen was led away by the bailiff.

Among those who testified at the hearing was one witness to the accident who explained how she had held Ms. Levenson in her arms and wondered if she was about to die.

As she was being held, Ms. Levenson said, she had been preoccupied with the parts of her body that, after being dragged and having her clothes raked off, could have been exposed to passersby.

The witness reassured her in court. "I just want to let you know that I kept you covered," she said, for which Ms. Levenson said she was most grateful.

Being safe

In a comment on the proceedings, Mr. Schmidt, the former mayor and cyclist enthusiast, said he felt that justice had been served.

The publicity of the sentence "will serve strong notice to motorists that they can't expect to get off easily or at all when they injure pedestrians or bicyclists," he said. "People who drink and drive should be punished. I don't care if you're 95 years old. ... To drink and drive is the worst, absolutely the worst."

"Everybody needs to take a deep breath and get off their cell phones" and pay attention to the road, said Ms. Levenson, who is gradually returning to bike racing and is also a member of Menlo Park's Bicycle Commission. "How do you make people more safe on the road? Educate the cyclist; educate the motorist."


Posted by FairPlay, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 13, 2008 at 2:20 am

God bless MaryAnn Levenson. I hope & pray that she continues to recover.

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