Mechanic charged in Kalamazoo bike crash deaths

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
With 6-7-16 and R.I.P written on it, a white bike sits against a wooden cross, the scene of a  bicycle/truck accident in which five cyclists died and four were injured, along N. Westnedge Ave. near Kalamazoo, Michigan on June 8, 2016.

Kalamazoo — A Battle Creek mechanic has been arrested in the crash that killed five bicyclists and injured four others Tuesday.

Charles E. Pickett Jr., 50, was charged Thursday with five counts of second-degree murder and four counts of reckless driving causing serious impairment.

He faces up to life in prison on each of the murder charges and up to five years on each reckless driving infraction.

“Everything I know about his case has influenced the seriousness of the charges,” said Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting.

Pickett will be arraigned as soon as he is physically able to be, said Getting, who wouldn’t elaborate on Pickett’s health issues.

Pickett was taken into custody shortly after the crash just north of Kalamazoo and was taken to a hospital for unknown reasons.

Getting declined to say whether Pickett was at a hospital or in the Kalamazoo County Jail.

The prosecutor said investigators are still working on the case, including lab work from the Michigan State Police that could determine whether Pickett was influenced by alcohol or drugs at the time of the crash.

A half-hour before the wreck, residents had told police the driver of a pickup had been driving erratically through Kalamazoo.

But police never spotted the vehicle, which was the one that plowed into a group of bicyclists from behind.

“The filing of formal charges is only the first step in the judicial process,” said Getting. “The investigation is not over and the police will continue to gather information on what led up to this crash.”

During a brief hearing Thursday in Kalamazoo County District Court, a Kalamazoo County sheriff’s deputy read the charges against Pickett and described a few details about the offenses.

Lt. Jim VanDyken said victims who survived the crash suffered injuries to their femur and head, and cuts to their leg and body.

Pickett, who had lived in Tennessee, was charged in 2011 with driving under the influence in Rhea County in eastern Tennessee, according to court records from that state. The charge was later dismissed.

In 2012, he was charged with speeding in a work zone with workers present in nearby Hamilton County, according to court records. The outcome of the case wasn’t known.

Pickett didn’t have any traffic or criminal offenses in Michigan, according to law enforcement and secretary of state officials.

While living in Dayton, Tennessee, which is north of Chattanooga, he was the owner of Pickett’s Garage in Dayton, according to the court records.

It wasn’t known when Pickett, who grew up in Michigan, returned to the state.

His family declined to talk to a reporter Thursday.

As for the injured, Paul Runnels was listed in serious condition and Sheila Jeske in fair condition Thursday at Bronson Methodist Hospital.

At Borgess Medical Center, Paul Gobble was listed in serious condition and Jennifer Johnson in fair condition Thursday, according to a spokeswoman.

Killed in the wreck were a former nurse, a research manager and two members of 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 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.

On Thursday night several hundred people packed a Kalamazoo church to remember the victims. They sang, lit candles and some cried during the prayer service at St. Thomas More Church.

In the center of the sanctuary were nine lit candles, representing the nine victims.

The Rev. Ken Schmidt told the mourners that the tragedy, occurring so quickly after a shooting spree in February, dredged up fears most people prefer to keep buried.

“We try to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “That’s an impossible task.”

Among the attendees trying to make sense of the calamity was Cathy Jarosz of Kalamazoo.

“It does make you wonder,” she said after the service. “It could have been any of us.”

At the site of the crash, 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 five white ghost bikes that are used to symbolize such tragedies. A black tire tread lined the narrow shoulder.

Getting said Thursday he was awed by the town’s response to the calamity, including 600 people who turned out for a silent bike ride in tribute to the victims.

“I don’t know how you can see something like that and not feel better,” he said. “Thank you, Kalamazoo. You’re amazing.”

The incident marked the second large-scale tragedy in four months for the Kalamazoo area.

In February, Jason Dalton was charged with killing six people and injuring two during a shooting spree at three different spots in the city.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell