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The crash site from the driver’s perspective.
An off-duty Chicago cop who apparently struck a female cyclist with his truck while drunk, fled the scene, and then lied about the incident on a police report, was acquitted of both felony charges he faced: leaving the scene of an accident and filing a false police report. However, last Thursday Cook County Judge James Linn did find Officer Michael Bergeson, 34, guilty of misdemeanor failing to provide aid and information at an accident involving injury.
On August 3, 2012, around 3:25 a.m., Nina Pilacoutas, 27, was cycling west home from her bartending job with boyfriend Clayton Meyer when they came to California and Wabansia, a skewed intersection with four-way stop signs. Bergeson was allegedly driving his Ford F150 pickup northbound on California when he blew a stop sign. Pilacoutas went over the hood of the truck and landed face-first on the pavement, suffering a concussion, facial injuries, broken bones in her feet, and bruises on her body.
According to Meyer, Bergeson was speeding and swerving prior to the crash. The officer allegedly got out of his truck, acting confused, and asked if the victim was OK. According to Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Freeman, the driver drunkenly called 911 three times after the crash but did not admit fault, or provide his name or location. He repeatedly hung up on the dispatcher. Bergeson allegedly fled the scene once the ambulance was on the way.
Fortunately, the truck’s license plate was left at the scene and police traced it to Bergeson’s home on the 1800 block of North Whipple, near the crash site. However, Bergeson did not answer the door and the truck was not in sight. Two days later he made a police report claiming that it was Pilacoutas who ran a stop sign and hit his truck.
After Bergeson was charged, he opted for a bench trial rather than a trial by jury. “Do not cut this guy a break because he called 911 in a drunken, cryptic manner,” Freeman said during closing arguments. “That’s what makes it worse because the defendant is a cop and he leaves a bleeding young woman in the middle of the street because he’s drunk.”
Defense attorney Tom Breen argued that it couldn’t be proved his client was driving when the crash occurred. He also implied that the victim was to blame, noting that she wasn’t wearing a helmet and had been drinking after finishing her bartending shift.
Bergeson will be sentenced in March. He faces probation or up to one year in prison. He has been relieved of his police powers and is currently working an administrative post with pay, according to the police department.
Jim Freeman, a lawyer specializing in bike cases with the firm Freeman Kevenides (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome. “It’s a common thing for someone to flee the scene of a crash involving an injury and only get convicted of a 403 [code for failure to provide info and render aid],” he said. “The ridiculous thing is that clearly the judge was convinced the guy left the scene, but for whatever reason he didn’t give him a felony. I assume that the only thing that saved the guy was that he stopped and called 911 before fleeing.”
Freeman, who is friendly with Breen, said he’s a talented lawyer and his services don’t come cheap. “I’m sure that was an expensive case for Bergeson to win,” he said, adding that it was a shrewd tactic to choose a bench trial over a trial by jury. “I bet that a jury would have sent that guy down. The judge is able to separate himself from the emotional aspects of the case and concentrate on the law.”
While Freeman doesn’t think Linn acquitted Bergeson of the felonies because he is a cop, he said the defendant’s profession may have affected the way other officers handled the investigation. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a lot of special treatment in the way his case was investigated by police before the trial. For example, they didn’t do a breathalyzer test.”
Freeman said he’s certain the victim will pursue a civil case against the Bergeson. Pilacoutas and Breen did not respond to my requests for interviews on the matter. Because the burden of proof is lower in a civil suit, Freeman thinks Pilacoutas would have a good chance of winning. “Just because they lost in the criminal case, it doesn’t mean she’s going to lose in the civil case,” he said.