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Crash was ‘worst thing;’ five killed, driver charged with DUI

Updated December 16, 2020 - 4:48 pm

Michael Anderson was pedaling alongside some of his closest friends Dec. 10 on a stretch of highway near Searchlight, surrounded by miles of open desert, when a box truck plowed into the group of nearly 20 bicyclists and their safety escort vehicle.

Four men and one woman were killed, while four others were injured, including the escort vehicle’s driver.

The truck’s driver, Jordan Alexander Barson, was charged Tuesday, Dec. 15, with felony five counts of DUI resulting in death, five felony counts of reckless driving resulting in death, one felony count of DUI resulting in substantial bodily harm and one felony count of DUI resulting in substantial bodily harm, according to court records.

“An extremely high level” of methamphetamine was found in his system, according to Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.

Nevada Highway Patrol reports he was taken into custody at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, by the Mohave County Sheriff Department in Kingman, Arizona. He is awaiting extradition to Clark County.

The crash, which happened at about 9:40 a.m. in the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 95 near Nelson Road, was the deadliest vehicle vs. bicyclist crash in Nevada since 2004, the earliest year for which state data on such crashes is available.

“It’s just the worst thing I could ever see in my life,” Anderson, a former Las Vegas police officer, said that afternoon as he fought back tears.

The Clark County coroner has identified the victims as Las Vegas residents Erin Michelle Ray, 39; Michael Murray, 57; Aksoy Ahmet, 48; Thomas Chamberlin Trauger, 57; and Gerrard Suares Nieva, 41, all of whom died from blunt force trauma.

Message from governor

Anderson said the group had set out early Dec. 10 from M Resort in Henderson to complete the roughly 130-mile Nipton Loop — just as it has done each year for the past 15 years.

But as the group approached Searchlight, on a stretch of road which has a speed limit of 75 mph, winds started to pick up.

According to Anderson, that’s when about seven riders broke off from the larger group of bicyclists, sliding behind their safety escort vehicle for cover. Anderson stayed with the larger group.

And then suddenly, a white, unmarked box truck hit those bicyclists from behind, pinning them against the safety escort vehicle — a silver Subaru hatchback carrying food, water and spare tires.

“All of them were hit,” Anderson said of his friends who had been riding behind the escort vehicle, which was thrust forward into the other bicyclists after the initial impact.

The five cyclists who did not survive the crash were pronounced dead at the scene.

Of the three injured cyclists, Jerome Ducrocq was flown to University Medical Center in critical condition, Jose Vasquez was taken by ambulance with survivable injuries that included several broken bone, and the third had minor injuries and declined to go to the hospital. The Subaru’s driver was taken to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.

Ducrocq’s condition was unknown Wednesday morning.

Gov. Steve Sisolak offered his condolences on Twitter a few hours after the crash: “I was devastated to hear this news this morning. Kathy and I are sending all our love to the families affected and to those on the scene responding to the situation.”

If the crash had not occurred, the group would have continued on from Searchlight to Nipton and Jean before looping back toward M Resort along Interstate 15.

‘Good, strong athletes’

Anderson, who spoke to a group of reporters about 12 miles from where he witnessed his friends die, did not mention any special circumstances surrounding this year’s group ride.

But Lelani Gonzalez, a manager at Pro Cyclery, a local bike shop, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the group was on an informal ride to celebrate the retirement of one of the bicyclists.

Anderson retired last month after 22 years with the Metropolitan Police Department.

Gonzalez said one of the shop’s employees had been on the ride and survived, though it was obvious even in a brief phone call that he was shaken by the event.

“He was just beside himself,” she said. “He couldn’t even talk.”

News of the crash and its victims spread quickly on that day within the tight-knit cycling community in Southern Nevada, according to Cheri Tillman, co-owner of the bike shop.

“Everybody that we’ve heard that got hurt or killed is very well-known in the cycling community,” she said, adding that many of the cyclists who were part of the group ride are regular customers at her store. “They’re all good, strong athletes.”

The crash pushed the number of bicyclists killed on Clark County roadways this year to eight. Statewide, according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, that figure jumps to 10.

Under investigation

For hours after the crash, U.S. 95 was closed in both directions for the investigation and for cleanup efforts.

Trooper Travis Smaka, a spokesman for Nevada Highway Patrol, said impairment was not originally suspected and the uninjured driver, later identified as Barson, was cooperating with investigators.

If convicted, he could face decades behind bars.

“It’s extremely reckless,” Wolfson said in a phone interview. “It’s callous. And look at the result, because of a choice he made.

“What it comes down to, like anything else, is making choices. When your choices, such as driving while intoxicated, affect other people’s lives that’s when it becomes very serious.”

Nevada law requires drivers to maintain 3 feet of separation while passing cyclists.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened a separate safety investigation into the crash, and is coordinating with the Highway Patrol and other local law enforcement agencies regarding evidence collection.

Alan Snel, a longtime Las Vegas bicycle enthusiast and an author who campaigns for increased safety for riders, said, “As a bicyclist, you could do everything absolutely correctly, and you could still be maimed or killed.”

Snel was seriously injured in 2017 when he was struck by a car while cycling in Florida and since has been a strong advocate for bicyclist safety reforms in the United States.

Hours after the crash, Anderson and a couple of the other surviving cyclists got back on their bikes.

From the site of the crash, depending on what route they took, the riders would have had nearly four hours to sit with their thoughts before reaching their parked cars at M Resort, including what they would say to the families of those who died.

“I don’t know how to say it to them,” Anderson said before making the return trip. “It’s terrible.”

To honor, help

Breakaway Cycling has launched an official website to honor the victims. Donations may be made to the families of the cyclists on the website, which features photos of each victim. As of Wednesday morning, $169,000 had been raised.

As of Wednesday morning, the GoFundMe account has raised more than $85,000.

Boulder City Review Editor Hali Bernstein Saylor and Review-Journal staff writers Katelyn Newberg, Glenn Puit, Sabrina Schnur and Alexis Ford and video reporter James Schaeffer contributed to this report.

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