Monday, February 19, 2018
Public safety

Man who once wanted to be cop now charged in fatal tandem bike crash

CLEARWATER — Eleven years ago, Christopher Weed was a fresh-faced high school senior excited about his direction in life.

Wearing a tuxedo in his senior picture, the Dunedin High School wrestling team captain told the yearbook committee he was headed to college to major in criminology after graduation in 2002. He wanted to become a police officer someday.

But Weed, now 29, sat in the Pinellas County jail Wednesday, the suspect in a Labor Day hit-and-run that left a tandem bicyclist dead and the rider's girlfriend critically injured.

At a hearing Wednesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley ordered Weed's bail on two felony counts of leaving the scene of an accident raised from $15,000 to $125,000.

She based the decision partly on Weed's driving history, which includes a 2006 misdemeanor charge of racing — 120 mph in a 55 mph zone. Records show Weed pleaded no contest and adjudication was withheld.

Weed was in the jail's medical unit Wednesday. A Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman did not say why.

Weed's mother, Marilyn Weed, 56, of Dunedin told a reporter that "he is the best child a mother could ask for."

"We — his whole family — we stand by him 100 percent," she said.

Clearwater police say their investigation so far indicates that Rob Lemon, 25, and Hilary Michalak, 27, were in a designated bike lane on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway about 6:15 a.m. Monday when Weed's teal, two-door 1997 Nissan pickup hit them.

Surveillance video shows the victims in the nearby Clearwater Beach Roundabout area about 6:10 a.m. and Weed's vehicle there soon after, police said.

Weed came forward Tuesday and said his truck may have been involved. Officers say he told them he left his job at Shephard's Beach Resort on Monday morning and blacked out on the way home. He said he didn't remember hitting anyone but decided to come to police after waking up in the shower and seeing a news report on the crash.

Police inspecting his pickup in his back yard found the windshield missing and the front and top damaged. Weed had no explanation for the missing windshield, police said.

Authorities released photos of the truck, hoping to jog the memories of motorists who might have seen it or might be able to help them locate the windshield.

The case is being watched closely by cycling enthusiasts, who say the bay area is among the country's most dangerous for bikers.

A 2006 Florida traffic law stipulates motorists must keep a minimum 3-foot distance between their vehicle and a bike, even where designated bike lanes exist.

Ted Hollander, an attorney with the Ticket Clinic, a statewide law firm that deals with traffic tickets, said citations for violating the rule are rare: "I can't remember the last one I saw."

Jim Shirk, 70, president of the Tampa Bay Freewheelers bike club, said he thinks motorists are sometimes confused by the law.

"It seems that most people assume that once you're in the bike lane, they've got a pass on the 3-foot rule," said Shirk, who also chairs the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Long-time tandem cyclist Barbara Heineken, 58, of Tampa said riders can take steps to ensure their own safety. While enthusiasts say it's common for cyclists to take to the road before sunrise — when it's cooler and the road is free of cars — Heineken said she almost never rides after dark.

"I'm scared of cars, especially around here, so I want to do everything I can to not put myself in danger," she said.

Mike Riordon, whose City Cycle and Supply is near the Memorial Causeway, said customers share horror stories daily.

Often, he said, drivers will look directly at a bicyclist yet never fully register the rider's presence because they're scanning the road for cars.

Shirk thinks bike lanes, ideally divided from cars by physical barriers like a row of parking, are the safest option for cyclists. But he said accidents like this one won't keep him inside.

"It's a right to get out on the road," Shirk said. "Nobody says the road's only for cars."

On Wednesday, there was still no information about what Weed was doing before he drove onto the causeway.

Shephard's Resort managers did not answer Facebook messages and phone calls seeking details about Weed's hours and demeanor before the accident.

State records show Weed was arrested in 2012 on a misdemeanor disorderly intoxication charge, which was dropped. About 10 years ago, records show, a judge withheld adjudication on citations for failing to obey a traffic sign and driving on a suspended license.

Michalak's family remained by her side at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, where she was in a medical coma with serious head injuries but moved her legs and arms Wednesday.

Her father, Edmund Michalak of Michigan, said her recovery will be long. He thanked police and the public for identifying a suspect in the hit-and-run.

"The Tampa community has been wonderful," he said.

Times staff writers Alison Barnwell, Curtis Krueger, Claire Wiseman, Laura C. Morel and Kameel Stanley, and researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]

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