Police: State rep wore helmet in fatal motorcycle crash

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Michigan state Rep. Pete Pettalia died in a motorcycle crash Monday evening after a pickup turned into his lane on a rural highway, according to state police, who said the Presque Isle Republican was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.

Pettalia was 61 years old and is survived by his wife, Karen, and their two adult children.

Michigan State Police, who assisted the Montmorency County Sheriff’s Department in the investigation of the fatal accident, said Tuesday the crash occurred on southbound M-33 in Loud Township.

Pettalia was on his motorcycle when “a pickup truck driven by a 59-year-old woman from Fairview turned left, directly into his lane of traffic,” according to a state police statement. “His motorcycle struck the pickup truck broadside. Pettalia was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.”

The driver of the pickup was alone and not injured, state police said, and the investigation is ongoing.

The third-term legislator was riding his motorcycle from Alpena to Lansing for Tuesday’s legislative session, which he did frequently in the summer and fall when the weather was clear, said Rob Winkelman, Pettalia’s legislative director.

“It’s just horrible news,” said state Rep. Lee Chatfield, a Republican from Levering whose district neighbors Pettalia’s district. “Everyone is in shock.”

Before Pettalia left for Lansing, he was supposed to attend the opening of a local Republican Party campaign office in Alpena with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Winkelman said.

But Calley said late Monday that Pettalia wasn’t at the event and he expected to see him.

“I believe I passed right by the accident scene on the way home. The road was blocked off and there were tons of emergency services vehicles,” Calley told The Detroit News. “I got a call about a half-hour later that he was killed in a motorcycle accident.”

Though he was wearing a helmet Monday evening, Pettalia in 2011 introduced a House bill to repeal Michigan’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law. The bill never went to vote, but Pettalia supported a separate Senate bill that passed the House 69-39 and was signed into law April 2012 by Gov. Rick Snyder, allowing motorcyclists to forgo helmets while riding.

Pettalia, a former emergency medical technician, said in 2011 that the mandatory helmet law was impeding tourism to the state. Pettalia was a member of the House Natural Resources, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee.

“I have been on the scenes of accidents and they are tragic — we don’t want to see anybody injured,” Pettalia said at the time. “(But) we’re trying to increase Michigan’s ability to compete with other states (and) people traveling on motorcycles don’t come into Michigan because of our helmet law. We’re surrounded by helmetless states.”

News of Pettalia’s death spread quickly Monday evening.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said he was “devastated” by the loss.

“Pete was a dear friend and long-time colleague who was well-known for his expertise, his hard work, and his love for the great outdoors,” Cotter said in a statement. “His fellow Republican representatives elected him last year into a leadership position in our caucus, and everyone from both parties looked up to him as a senior member of the state House.”

Gov. Rick Snyder indicated that he will order flags lowered in Pettalia’s honor at an appropriate time.

“Sue and I were heartbroken to hear of the death of Representative Pettalia and send condolences on behalf of the entire state to his family, colleagues and friends. Peter’s wife, Karen, their children and grandchildren are in our thoughts and prayers especially as they deal with this tragedy,” Snyder said in a statement.

“Peter had a long career committed to helping the people he represented and served, whether as a volunteer firefighter, a township supervisor, or a state representative. He will be missed by many people here in Lansing as well as in his long-time home of Presque Isle and throughout his district.”

Pettalia, who chaired the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, helped run an auto repair business for more than 30 years. He served as Presque Isle Township supervisor for 16 years and as a volunteer firefighter for 15 years before joining the state Legislature, according to his official biography.

The Michigan House was expected to delay planned votes Tuesday in light of Pettalia’s death, according to House Republican spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, who said members would caucus but not take up any legislation.

“Rep. Pettalia was a great public servant, extremely easy to work with and fiercely dedicated to his family, constituents and community,” said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Aurburn Hills, in a statement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called Pettalia a “tremendous public servant” during his time in the state House.

“He was a tireless advocate for the people of his district and their interests in Lansing,” she said in a statement. “His commitment to his constituents cannot be overstated. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, who worked with Pettalia in the state Legislature, also lamented the “very sad news.”

“Condolences to the entire Pettalia family, as well as his colleagues,” Dillon wrote on Twitter.

Pettalia represented the 106th House District, which includes Alpena, Presque Isle, Alcona, and Iosco counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Calley said he recruited Pettalia to run for the seat in 2008 while he was a member of the state House.

Pettalia lost the 2008 race, but prevailed in 2010 as voters swept Republicans into full control of state government.

“He had the courage to make the hard decisions. He was a leader,” Calley wrote Monday night on Facebook. “Michigan is far better because he served. My heart breaks for his wife Karen and their entire family.”

Pettalia is the second state lawmaker to unexpectedly die this year. Rep. Julie Plawecki, D-Dearborn Heights, died in June after suffering a heart attack during a hiking trip in Oregon.

joosting@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Holly Fournier contributed