Opinion: The Driver Who Killed My Husband is Going on Trial; I Don’t Expect Much
After 20 months, the man who ran over my husband will finally go on trial on Tuesday. I would like to say that I’m looking forward to justice being served, but I already know that’s impossible. The laws governing the deaths of people killed by car and truck drivers don’t seem very fair to me. America is a car culture and I’ve read that lawmakers have always worried about ruining the lives of good people who just made one little mistake, even if that little mistake resulted in the death of someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is what happened to Jeff Williamson.
Jeff was killed right before the long Fourth of July weekend in 2021. He was cycling north in the bike lane of Central Park West. We had talked 15 minutes earlier. He always called right before he left work. He was one of those skinny, energetic guys who eats ravenously but never gains weight. He wanted dinner ready when he got home. I didn’t think to tell him, but the green beans and chicken were almost ready.
Jeff was riding his Bottecchia, an Italian racing bike. Once an aspiring aeronautical engineer, Jeff had read about the company when he was a poorly paid, junior newspaper reporter in his home state of Connecticut. The bike didn’t impress most people. Its white paint was a scratched. It had seen almost 50 years of hard use, but roll it into a bike shop and mechanics would flock around. To them, it was like a 1965 Ford Mustang. Jeff’s pride always trumped his desire to look nonchalant. He loved his bike. Riding it made him happy to be alive. He didn’t just commute to work. He would set off on weekend treks from our apartment near Columbia University to Coney Island or some other far-flung destination. While it was being renovated, he pedaled around LaGuardia Airport regularly. He had to monitor the progress. Those trips allowed him to indulge two passions simultaneously: bikes and planes. When Jeff was a teen, he saved money from a paper route to pay for flying lessons. His technical side and problem solving abilities made him a standout in his job as an advertising copy writer. His business fetishizes youth but at 71, he was still a full-time executive, working, creating, strategizing.
At a little past 5:30, Jeff was riding uptown along Central Park. He was in what the city calls a “protected” bike lane. But as he reached 86th Street, he had a green light so he entered the intersection. He didn’t realize that the US Postal Service truck in the lane to his left was beginning to turn right into the park. I’ve seen two videos of what happened. One camera filmed Jeff’s death looking south. The other pointed west. Jeff was almost across the westbound lane when the truck driver struck him.
In the last seconds, you can see the bike wobble as he desperately tried to steer to safety. The driver’s side of the truck bounced high off the ground as its left wheel rolled over his chest. The truck wasn’t the chubby, iconic vehicle you see in children’s picture books. It was a big, boxy, highway-ready Peterbilt. It didn’t have a hood. The windshield dropped straight down to the bumper. At impact, the driver would have been inches from my husband. The death certificate says Jeff Williamson died of blunt force trauma, but what haunts me on a slow-mo loop is the technicolor image of his splintered ribs being driven into his heart and lungs. The Bottecchia died with him. The weight of the truck bent the cross bar to a sickening angle. It broke my heart all over again when I saw it. The internet says that a fully loaded postal truck weighs about 4.5 tons. Jeff didn’t have a chance.
Sergei Alekseev, the driver, stayed at the scene. He wasn’t detained by police. In my imagination he was comfortably at home in Brooklyn when my oldest son and I were finally allowed to see Jeff’s body at the hospital.
In November, he went to the police station where he was formally charged with a violation of the Right of Way law, a misdemeanor, and failure to show due care, a traffic violation. The charges seemed paltry, but the assistant district attorney said they were the strongest charges that could be brought under existing laws. Alekseev pleaded not guilty to both. I am honestly grateful to the DA’s office. The lawyers I’ve talked to seem intelligent and competent. I know they have heavy case loads. A few months ago, after a telephone hearing, an administrative judge suspended Alekseev’s driver’s license for a year. It seemed like a small penalty for a man’s death, but at least it was something.
As I said before, 20 months have elapsed since Jeff was killed. I’ve lost track of the number of times the trial has been postponed. Alekseev keeps changing lawyers. Each time, the new lawyer gets time to prepare the case. I know from the crash report that Alekseev was born in 1959. My theory is that he’s trying to run out the clock to his retirement. The trial is finally scheduled to start on Tuesday. I’ve been in court for most of the appearances. At the first one, I cried. After the charges were read, the Assistant District Attorney handed the judge a paper and said, “It was a really bad accident, your honor. Here’s the death certificate.” Jeff’s name was never spoken. It felt like in addition to being killed, my husband had been erased. Alekseev’s lawyer looked at me as he walked out of the court and silently mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
Alekseev ignored me. I stare at him every time we’re in the same room. He’s never looked at me. I’ll definitely be watching him in court this week.