PORT CLINTON — Emilee Gagnon was riding a loaded touring bicycle across the country to raise money for multiple sclerosis research when she was struck from behind by a sport utility vehicle on State Rt. 163, just east of Genoa.
The driver of the SUV, Lynne Smith, 49, of Martin, Ohio, could not see the 21-year-old Massachusetts woman riding right of the white line on the berm of the highway because she was blinded by the setting sun’s glare, investigators said.
On Monday, Ottawa County Municipal Judge Frederick Hany II placed Ms. Smith on probation for two years and fined her $750 for vehicular manslaughter. A 90-day jail sentence was suspended on condition that she complete the terms of probation.
The judge also suspended Ms. Smith’s driver’s license for two years, the maximum for the second-degree misdemeanor.
Judge Hany said Ms. Smith was driving at or under the posted speed limit of 55 mph on the two-lane road when she reached for the visor to block the sun setting directly in the horizon in front of her.
He noted that the driver had not consumed any alcohol or illegal drugs nor was she using her cell phone or any other electronic device nor driving erratically. He also said the only traffic infraction during her 33-year driving history had been for speeding.
Miss Gagnon was struck and killed at about 7:20 p.m. on Sept. 23. She was bicycling west between Oak Harbor and Genoa after leaving Oberlin College earlier in the day. She planned to stay the night at the home of a Perrysburg woman who had contacted her through a Web site that matches hosts with touring bicyclists.
“This is a tragedy of unspeakable and immeasurable proportion, suffered by both her family and community. Nothing within the power of this court can meaningfully make either of these two families whole again,” Judge Hany said.
Before imposing the sentence, Judge Hany listened to the impact statements of Miss Gagnon’s parents, siblings, and aunt, and each described her as a young, talented woman with a promising future.
Miss Gagnon, a recent graduate of Westfield State University in Massachusetts, was riding her touring bicycle alone to San Francisco and using the cross-country trip as a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis and to spread awareness of the disease.
Celia Gagnon told the judge that her daughter’s maternal grandfather in England had suffered with MS for 34 years before he died last January of a “broken heart” because of her death.
“My daughter’s life was taken by Lynne Smith. It was taken in a violent and vicious way,” she said. “There is nothing worse that can be done to a human being.”
Some family members told the judge about Miss Gagnon’s battle with ovarian cancer that began at age 13, surgery to remove the tumor, and her struggles in undergoing chemotherapy, a treatment that caused her to lose her hair.
“Every decision has an impact. I don’t quite understand why, if you’re blinded by the sun and you can’t see, but you continue to drive at the same speed you were driving before,” said Rebecca Gagnon, 20, the victim’s sister.
Judge Hany said the Ohio Highway Patrol determined from evidence that Ms. Smith’s speed at the time of the accident was between 38 and 50 mph.
Ms. Smith’s attorney, Tom Stebbins, said she was blinded for a few seconds before the crash and, as the highway patrol’s investigation indicates, had slowed down because of the glaring sun and never saw the bicyclist in front of her.
“My client is so sorry for what happened,” Mr. Stebbins said. “Lynne could not possibly feel worse about this accident and the tragic loss of Emilee.”
Ms. Smith didn’t give a statement in the courtroom before she was sentenced.
Susan Richards, who had made arrangements to host Miss Gagnon, was among the spectators in the courtroom for the sentencing.
She said she got a text from her before the crash letting her know she was on her way and was about 15 miles from Ms. Richard’s home in Perrysburg.
“I had dinner ready,” she said after the sentencing. “I was expecting her to come within a hour.”
Ms. Richards, who is a bicyclist, said the fatality has made her aware of the blinding effects the sun can have on motorists and their ability to see bicyclists and pedestrians.
“I could never forget that night,” she said. “It has affected me as a driver, and it has affected me as bicyclist.”
Contact Mark Reiter at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6199.