Tragedy revisits Kalamazoo in cyclist deaths

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — Prayer services. A makeshift memorial. Unanswered questions.

A rider clasps her hands to her face as the names of the victims are read at the beginning of the ride.

For Kalamazoo, the scene was sadly familiar Wednesday.

Just four months after six people were killed in a shooting spree, the city was grieving anew. Five people died Tuesday night when a Chevrolet pickup plowed into a group of bicyclists just north of the city. Four others were injured.

And residents asked themselves just how much more they could take.

“It’s crazy. This isn’t supposed to happen here,” said Eric Basile of Kalamazoo.

The pickup driver, whose name hasn’t been released, had been driving erratically for 30 minutes before running into the bicyclists, witnesses had told police.

The driver, who is being treated at a hospital, hasn’t been charged in the case. Authorities described him as a 50-year-old man from western Michigan.

The four injured victims were Jennifer Johnson, 40, of Kalamazoo, who was in fair condition, while Paul Gobble, 47, of Richland; Sheila Jeske, 53, of Richland; and Paul Runnels, 65, of Richland were in serious condition at local hospitals, said authorities.

Among the people killed were a former nurse, a research manager and two retirees who belonged to the Kalamazoo Catholic Diocese.

They were identified as Melissa Fevig-Hughes, 42, of Augusta; Debra Bradley, 53, of Augusta, a former nurse with Gull Lake Community Schools; Suzanne Sippel, 56, of Augusta, a science data manager at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, a Michigan State University facility in Hickory Corners; and retirees Fred Nelson, 73, of Kalamazoo and Lorenz Paulik, 74, of Kalamazoo, members of St. Thomas More Catholic Parish, according to authorities.

The MSU facility described Sippel as an avid biker and good worker.

“She was a valued and cherished member of the KBS community,” the facility said in a statement. “She will be sorely missed by all of us.”

In remembering Nelson and Paulik, the diocese’s leader recalled the earlier tragedy that struck Kalamazoo.

“Our beloved community of Kalamazoo has once again suffered a devastating and shocking loss, and more than ever we are called to draw upon the strength and goodwill of everyone in this caring, vibrant community,” said Bishop Paul J. Bradley.

At the site of the most recent calamity, a makeshift memorial slowly grew along the tree-lined, two-lane road in Cooper Township.

The spot was marked by flowers, a wooden cross and a white “ghost bike” that is used to symbolize such tragedies. A black tire tread lined the narrow shoulder. Someone left a note exhorting the victims’ loved ones to remain strong.

“God give you the peace and strength in the days to come,” it read. “Ride on, friends, on the roads of Heaven.”

Other bicyclists periodically stopped by the site Wednesday, surveying what was left in the wake of the destruction. They struggled to wrap their heads around the size of the tragedy.

Will Bradley, 43, who has been riding most of his life, said he sometimes hears about a single bicyclist being killed. But five?

“How fast was he going?” he asked about the pickup driver. “How do you cause that much damage?”

Other visitors said they believed the victims were a loose-knit group that rode together once a week.

As they did in February, when Jason Dalton was charged with fatally shooting six people, various parts of the community moved to remember the victims of the latest horror.

A group of 100 bicyclists wearing black arm bands met at a downtown Kalamazoo coffee shop Wednesday night to hold a ride in honor of the victims.

The five-mile ride, which was done in silence, circled around the southeast part of the city. After it was finished, riders left flowers at the memorial site.

The Kalamazoo Strong Organization, which was formed in response to the February shootings, announced it would again be raising money, this time for the loved ones of the bicyclists.

The group also held a moment of silence with a Michigan State Police chaplain at Morris Park in nearby Comstock, which was followed by a cookout.

“Kalamazoo is strong,” said organization leader Rachel Keiser. “We rally together. We take care of our own.”

Gov. Rick Snyder said his thoughts and prayers were with Kalamazoo residents.

“Michiganders as a family are in mourning today as Kalamazoo struggles to understand another senseless tragedy,” he said in a statement.

One day after attending a court hearing involving Dalton, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting found himself speaking at a press conference for yet another spate of deaths.

The prosecutor said he was at a loss to describe his feelings over the twin tragedies.

“I just wish we had an opportunity to get our feet under us before we did it again,” he said.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell