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The crash site from the cyclists’ perspective.
Last month an off-duty Chicago cop who apparently struck a female cyclist with his truck while drunk, fled, 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, 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.
At Wednesday’s sentencing, Linn, who acknowledged Bergeson was in the “wrong,” could have given him up to one year in prison. That would have been an appropriate penalty for a man sworn to serve and protect the public, who instead drunkenly injured a young woman, left her lying in the street, and then blamed her for the crash on the report.
However, citing the cop’s “outstanding” record as an officer, the judge gave him a very lenient sentence: a year of court supervision and 30 days of community service at a rehabilitation clinic. Bergeson was also ordered to pay victim Nina Pilacoutas, 27, $2,250 in restitution. Court record indicate Pilacoutas also sued Bergeson, with a settlement reached early last month, although her lawyer Paul McClennon declined to comment on the case.
The crash took place on August 3, 2012, at around 3:25 a.m. Pilacoutas, an artist and bartender, was cycling west home from work with her 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. Meyer said the cop got out of his truck and acted confused.
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 drove away before the ambulance arrived. Fortunately, he left his license plate at the scene, but when police later traced the number to his residence he didn’t answer the door and his truck was nowhere in sight. Two days later he made a police report claiming that it was Pilacoutas who ran a stop sign and hit his truck.
“He is a coward and does not deserve to wield a badge,” Pilacoutas told Linn on Wednesday. She asked him “not to protect a cowardly man who happens to be a police officer and who never once apologized for nearly killing me.” Bergeson responded, “I apologize from the bottom of my heart… I am sorry for everything,” essentially acknowledging his guilt.
“Wow, he got supervision,” responded Jim Freeman, a lawyer specializing in bike cases with the firm Freeman Kevenides, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor. “Not very impressive is it?” However, Freeman wasn’t surprised by the sentence.
“It’s my experience in the city of Chicago that the authorities don’t seem to take hit-and-runs against cyclists very seriously,” Freeman said. “The law is clearly written that if there’s an injury and you flee the scene, it’s a felony, but they’re generally not handing out felonies in cases where the victim is a cyclist.”
He said that in the rare cases where drivers are convicted of felony hit-and-runs against cyclists, the motorist has committed an astonishingly brazen act of violence. He cited a 2012 incident where an intoxicated woman in a minivan barreled through a dozen cyclists on a tour of the southwest side, injuring several. Last May she was sentenced to five years in prison.
Freeman credits Bergeson’s defense attorney Tom Breen, with whom Freeman is friendly, for skillful work in securing a light sentence for his client. “The cop’s lawyer obviously did a great job,” he said. “But it seems like justice was not served.”