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His dangerous journey proves to be deadly

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Jim VanGelder had little choice. He was mentally disabled and thus not allowed to drive a car. Yet he still wanted to work, to socialize, to lead his own life.

So VanGelder traveled one of this area's most hazardous highways, U.S. 19, in two of the most hazardous ways imaginable: on foot and by bicycle.

The danger hit home 11 years ago, when a vehicle struck VanGelder as he walked. The accident severely damaged both legs, but that wasn't enough to keep him off U.S. 19.

On June 22, VanGelder, 41, took his last ride on U.S. 19. A hit-and-run driver struck and killed him about 10 p.m. as he pedaled toward home.

"I didn't like that," Marjorie VanGelder said of her son's transportation choices. "But he had to get around some way."

VanGelder was riding north, on the east side of the road, when he was struck near Village Drive. Mrs. VanGelder said she didn't know where her son went that night. Several friends and co-workers have said the same thing.

When VanGelder was struck, he had nearly reached the Evanridge Mobile Home Community, where he lived with his mother.

"He was almost home," she said.

The driver left the scene of the accident, and a passer-by didn't find VanGelder's body until about midnight.

Authorities are still searching for the driver who killed VanGelder. After investigating and inspecting equipment left at the scene, Florida Highway Patrol troopers have determined that the vehicle that hit VanGelder was a white Ford van, made between 1979 and 1991.

The truck would have damage to the right front or right front quarter panel and possibly fabric marks on the white paint. The van also may have spots of blue paint from the bicycle.

Anyone with information about the case should call the FHP at (800) 500-1240.

Mrs. VanGelder remained shocked and saddened last week as she prepared to greet mourners at her son's wake. "Maybe it couldn't have been avoided," she said. "But he didn't have to leave the scene."

VanGelder was born in Waterloo, N.Y., and suffered from polio when he 6 months old. That left him mentally disabled and slowed his physical and mental development, his mother said.

VanGelder moved to Citrus County in 1981 from Seneca Falls, N.Y. when his parents retired and sought a warm climate. For the last seven years he worked at Luigi's Pizza in Homosassa.

"He did a lot of breading of chicken and making coleslaw," said Kim Kernz, the restaurant's head waitress. "He would do anything for you. Anything you asked him to do, he did it."

VanGelder usually arrived at Luigi's, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, between 6 and 7 a.m. He would eat his morning meal, chat with regular customers, then begin work at 8 a.m.

Mrs. Kernz said she and the other staffers cautioned VanGelder about his method of travel. "If he didn't walk it, he rode it," she said. "We (warned) him every day we worked with him."

At home, neighbors described VanGelder as a quiet but friendly man whom they often saw riding his bicycle _ a Huffy dirt bike _ around the mobile home park.

"He was a very nice man, a very special man. He got along with everybody in the park," neighbor Donna Goodwin said.

On the day he died, VanGelder followed his normal routine.

He arrived at work early, giving himself enough time to eat breakfast before beginning his duties. His shift ended at noon, and he went home, ate lunch and cleaned up.

After that? His friends and associates don't know. Neither does Mrs. VanGelder.

"He was always taking off and not letting me know," she said. "He did his own thing. Jimmy's always been like this."