What Happens When You Kill a Bicyclist?
Twenty months after a brilliant surgeon was killed riding her bike, a controversial police investigation ruled it a tragic roadside collision. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
The services were starting to weigh on Reverend Laura Everett. I don’t want to do these anymore, she thought to herself on a warm evening in August 2015 as she prepared to mourn the passing of Anita Kurmann, a 38-year-old Swiss surgeon who was riding her bike through the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street when a flatbed tractor-trailer crushed her to death. I don’t want to stand by the side of the road and dedicate another ghost bike.
Everett arrived a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. to the intersection where Kurmann had died. She draped a golden stole over her black clerical shirt with a white collar, and ran through a mental checklist of the ceremony ahead: opening remarks; a brief history of ghost bikes, which are dedicated to cyclists killed on the road; a moment of silence; comments from friends and community members; and, lastly, the blessing of the ghost bike—in this case, an old city cruiser painted white with a wire basket and an engraved plaque commemorating Kurmann.
Several years ago, Everett didn’t know what a ghost bike ceremony was, let alone how to lead one. There were no references to them in the many prayer books she had studied, no official format to follow. Now, though, it seemed like she was performing one every few months and had, almost by accident, committed much of the service to memory. “You’re welcomed here if you bring your anger, your grief, and your sorrow,” she told the more than 100 people who gathered that evening. “You’re welcomed here if you bring your rage.”
Looking around, Everett could see that cyclists from all corners of the city had pedaled there to pay their respects. The owner of a nearby convenience store, whose security camera captured the grisly crash, had also joined the crowd, as had several officers from the Boston Police Department’s bicycle unit. “By being present here, you honor Anita’s life and her death,” Everett said, raising her voice over the blaring horns and rumbling diesel engines of passing traffic. “By being present here, together we will proclaim with our bodies and our bicycles that Anita’s death will not go unnoticed.”
Other than a handful of colleagues, nobody at the ceremony had known Kurmann. It didn’t seem to matter, though, as strangers stood shoulder to shoulder in the summer heat, bowed their heads, and wept for a woman they had never met. A representative from the Swiss consulate placed a bouquet of white flowers in the bike’s basket. Boston Police Captain Jack Danilecki expressed his condolences, telling the crowd that as a bike cop he knew how dangerous the streets are and that he supported their activism. Then the ceremony circled back to Everett, who listed off the names of four other Boston-area cyclists who were killed in collisions during the year leading up to Kurmann’s death. The oldest, Marcia Diehl, was 65. “We who continue to ride these roads confess that some days we ride scared,” she said, “and some days we ride angry.”
As the ceremony came to a close, the crowd huddled around the bike and Everett asked everyone there to place their hands upon it. Her voice shook with tears while she led them in a final prayer. Some in the crowd clasped their hands and clenched their jaws, wondering whether the driver who killed Kurmann would simply get away with it.
Friday, August 7, 2015, began like most weekdays for Anita Kurmann. She woke early, packed her MacBook, Kindle, blue Adidas jacket, and some work papers into a black Timbuk2 courier bag, and left her apartment in East Cambridge. Helmet strapped snugly to her head, she hopped onto her gray Trek Soho and pedaled through the sun-soaked streets toward work.
Boston was never meant to be a permanent stop for Kurmann. She’d grown up in the suburbs in Switzerland, and had steadily risen through the medical ranks, establishing herself as a compassionate and technically gifted surgeon. She completed her residency at the University Hospital of Bern, one of the oldest and most prestigious hospitals in her homeland, and developed an expertise in endocrinology. “She was friendly and had a very sensitive personality,” says Daniel Candinas, managing director of the hospital’s department of visceral surgery and medicine, who began working with Kurmann in 2008. “She could at times be funny, but she was not a joker. She was very serious, very professional, and quite firm when she had something in mind.” Plus, Candinas adds, “She was an enthusiastic biker.” Wind, rain, or snow, it was a safe bet that Kurmann had ridden to work.
After several years and thousands of hours in operating rooms, Kurmann was looking for new challenges. In particular, she told Candinas, she hoped to combine her surgical skills with research into stem cells in an effort to help the countless patients afflicted with thyroid cancer and genetic diseases of the gland. Candinas had little reason to doubt Kurmann’s abilities and threw his support behind the idea. Kurmann began looking for opportunities to pursue her dreams, and there was no better medical community in the world in which to do so than Boston’s.
In 2013, Kurmann rented an apartment and began splitting her time between a Boston University School of Medicine laboratory and a Beth Israel endocrinology unit. Doctors Darrell Kotton and Tony Hollenberg took her under their wing. “We worked beautifully together,” says Kotton, who leads a regenerative-medicine lab at BU.
Two years later, Kurmann’s work was finally paying off. Cell Stem Cell, among the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, had accepted her research paper and she was overjoyed. On July 22, 2015, she emailed Candinas at home in Switzerland to share the good news and discuss her return to Europe. Her plan was to finish out the calendar year in Boston and then rejoin the hospital in Bern, where she could run her own laboratory to continue her research.
Sixteen days later, Kurmann set out for work, steering her bike through Cambridge toward the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, a flat, wind-whipped slab of road that spans the girth of the Charles River and empties into the Back Bay. As she pedaled down the bike lane, cars and trucks whizzed past her, including a Mack truck with a 48-foot-long flatbed trailer. By 7:03 a.m., she had cleared the bridge and rolled down the gentle hill toward the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street. Traffic was light, but the one designated “shared lane” for bikes and cars was lined with sedans and box trucks moving at a good clip. Kurmann stayed to the far-right side of the road, hugging the curb in an unmarked lane that was delineated by a single stripe of white paint.
It is impossible to know what raced through Kurmann’s mind when she entered the intersection. She was side by side with the hulking truck that had passed her on the bridge when it suddenly swung wide, momentarily occupying two lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, before cutting a sharp right onto Beacon Street. As it rounded the corner, Kurmann disappeared under its wheels. A second or two later, her body and bike lay crumpled in the crosswalk. The truck never stopped.
The driver of an SUV that was traveling a few feet behind Kurmann slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car. A pedestrian on the other side of the intersection sprinted toward her. They arrived at a gruesome scene: Kurmann’s face and skull had sustained massive wounds and it was clear there was no resuscitating her.
Police and ambulances screeched toward the corner and arrived within minutes. Officers secured the area with yellow crime-scene tape and alerted BPD’s five-person Fatal Collision Investigative Team. The owner of a corner convenience store spoke with a detective and provided grainy surveillance-camera footage of the crash. Meanwhile, other witnesses made their way to police headquarters to give statements, and the Regional Intelligence Center, the nerve center of BPD’s surveillance efforts, began gathering additional footage from nearby traffic cameras. Officers across the region were instructed to be on the lookout for a flatbed truck with a red sleeper cab.
News of the crash and the ensuing manhunt spread quickly, and soon tips started coming in to the police. One caller said the suspect vehicle was likely an entertainment truck bound for Fenway Park. Another said he saw a truck with Quebec plates “near the Galleria Mall” that matched the cops’ description. All were dead ends. As the hours passed, officers cleared the crime scene and traffic once again resumed rolling through the busy intersection.
Detectives got the break they needed at 5:09 p.m., more than 10 hours after Kurmann’s death, when Boston Police Sergeant Joseph Horton received a call from a man named Matthew Levari. Levari explained that a friend had told him police were searching for a truck that looked a lot like his. After turning on to Beacon Street, he told Horton, he drove to a construction site in the Fenway neighborhood, delivered his cargo, and then got on the highway. Now he was at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Allentown, more than 300 miles from Boston. He inspected his truck, he said, and saw no sign of damage, no indication that he had run over Kurmann.
Horton told Levari to leave his rig where it was, stay put, and wait for a call. He then dialed up the homicide unit. It appeared the cops had their man.
The relationship between Boston’s police and the city’s bicycling community has long been fraught. Many of those who gathered at Kurmann’s ghost bike ceremony already knew the score: When a professional driver operating a large truck kills a cyclist, there are rarely criminal charges. In recent years there have been nine such cases in Massachusetts, and not one of the truck drivers has been indicted, according to the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. Still, says Joel Feingold, a Brookline town meeting member and a cycling advocate, Kurmann’s case seemed different. There were public pressure, media interest, and troubling optics. After all, a truck driver ran over a world-class scientist in broad daylight and then drove to Pennsylvania. “We thought in all likelihood,” Feingold says, “that there would be charges.”
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, detectives aggressively pursued their investigation into Levari. They impounded the tractor-trailer, obtained a search warrant for Levari’s cell phone and GPS device, studied his driving logs, and reviewed the vehicle’s safety inspection history. Accident-reconstruction experts watched and rewatched video footage of Levari running over Kurmann, and the crime lab ran a DNA test that confirmed that a smear of blood on one of Levari’s back tires was from Kurmann, the type of fundamental evidence on which successful prosecutions are built.
It was anyone’s guess how long the investigation would take. As with most cases, the police and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office kept mum. Every so often, Feingold called the prosecutor’s office and asked for an update on the case. Three months passed. Nothing. Another three months. Not a word. A year later, still nothing. Feingold remained pleasantly persistent. Finally, after 20 long months, he received some news: The DA was not going to prosecute the truck driver.
Feingold was stunned. Officers had finished their investigation and concluded, according to their report, that “the primary cause of this crash is the action of the victim, Ms. Kurmann, when she failed to recognize the turning truck and was outside of the truck driver’s field of view.” In other words, in the BPD’s eyes, Kurmann was entirely at fault.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing surprising about the way Kurmann died. Between 2009 and 2012, at least 14 collisions between vehicles and bicycles occurred at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street, more than anywhere else in the city. Nearly half of those collisions, as in the case of Kurmann’s death, involved vehicles turning onto Beacon Street from Mass. Ave. Crashes involving right turns are so common, in fact, that they’re known simply as “right hooks.” And more often than not, it’s a large commercial truck—not a car—that kills a cyclist. Such trucks “are not designed to drive in a city,” says Josh Zisson, a local attorney who specializes in bicycle law but was not involved in the Kurmann case. “They are not designed to interact with all the other forms of traffic, including bikes and pedestrians.”
From outdated infrastructure to congested roads to distracted drivers, the odds are stacked against Boston’s cyclists at just about every corner. There is one problem, though, that strikes Zisson as especially troublesome, particularly when it comes to litigating cases: a culture of victim-blaming by police. Though police vehemently deny it, he says that “there absolutely is bias among police officers when it comes to evaluating a crash between a bicycle and motor vehicle.”
As an example, Zisson tells me about a former client named Adrienne Naylor. In 2015, the same year Kurmann was killed, Naylor was riding through Allston when she approached the intersection of Cambridge Street and Harvard Avenue. The green arrow told her it was safe to make a left turn, but when she rolled into the intersection, a car collided with her. Naylor suffered a shattered femur and head injuries from being dragged along the pavement. Statements in the police report, however, pinned the blame entirely on her: “The driver of the vehicle which struck the victim stated that they were driving through the intersection on a green light and out of nowhere the cyclist appeared, and was on the windshield of the car. All the passengers in the car concurred with the statement.”
It took Zisson just a day of legwork, he says, to prove the police report was flawed. He obtained security-camera footage of the intersection, which showed Naylor had had the right of way, and then tracked down a motorist who had seen the entire accident. The man told Zisson he was sitting in his car when another vehicle blew clean through a red light and smashed into Naylor. The man also told Zisson that he’d tried to give the police a statement but was brushed aside. Furthermore, Zisson notes, the passengers in the car who corroborated the driver’s version of the story were the driver’s elderly grandparents—“not exactly disinterested witnesses,” he says—and police never interviewed Naylor before filing their report. “The officer,” Zisson says, “didn’t even think that he needed to speak with her.”
Ask any of the attorneys who regularly represent bicyclists, and they’ll likely share similar tales of frustration. Boston lawyer Andrew Fischer, for instance, has lodged several email complaints with city officials regarding the actions of police officers who respond to crashes between bikes and cars. According to a December 2016 email to police, Fischer claimed an officer declined to obtain the name, address, and insurance information of a driver who hit his client while she was riding her bike. “When he refused,” the email said, “one of the witnesses repeated the request. He was told by the officer to mind his [expletive deleted] business or he’d be arrested.”
In the Kurmann case, police officially closed the criminal investigation in 2017 and the surgeon’s family moved forward with a civil lawsuit against Levari. “One of the most difficult aspects of the case was that Anita’s family had to wait 20 months to obtain the video footage showing how the incident occurred,” says Ronald Gluck, who represented Kurmann’s family, adding that he “hounded” the district attorney’s office for information and video footage during the investigation, to no avail. He understands that police and prosecutors have concerns about evidence leaking to the media and corrupting an investigation, but he says this type of prolonged wait for video footage that police had from the day the crash occurred places an extraordinary emotional strain on loved ones. “Families,” he says, “should have the right to know the facts in these situations.”
In 2017, Kurmann’s estate and Levari reached a financial settlement, the terms of which are confidential. “The settlement didn’t represent a concession or an admission on the part of Mr. Levari that he was responsible for the accident in any way,” says attorney John Knight, who represented Levari in the civil case. “We never for a second questioned what a tragedy this was or how much the family was impacted…. I thought it was entirely appropriate to settle a case such as this. At the end of the day we could have litigated this case for three or four years, maybe it goes to trial, and regardless of what happens at the end of it, the Kurmann family still lost Anita.”
With the police investigation completed and the civil suit wrapped up, it finally seemed that the sad ordeal had come to an end. Kurmann’s family and Levari were poised to let go of the past and begin moving forward. Neither had any way of knowing, however, that Feingold and a handful of cycling advocates had an altogether different idea.
Nearly two years after Kurmann’s death, on a seasonally warm July day, Feingold filed a public records request with the district attorney’s office to learn more about the BPD’s investigation. It took a few weeks, but eventually he received a trove of documents and video footage that had never been made public. “The first time I watched it, when the truck ran her over, I stood up and said, ‘Oh, my God,’” Feingold says. “The second time I watched it, it made me cry. The driver has his foot on the gas and accelerates through the turn. This wasn’t a driver saying, ‘I’m in the city, I’m in traffic, I need to make sure my blind spot is clear.’ He did the opposite. He got a green light and he put his foot down.”
After showing the surveillance tape to several fellow cycling advocates, Feingold wasn’t the only one steaming mad. Richard Fries, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition; Fischer, the bicycle attorney; and Alan Wright, founder of RozzieBikes, joined him in examining the evidence. The four men pored over the police report line by line, and sorted, frame by frame, through video footage of Kurmann riding across the Mass. Ave. Bridge. The more time they spent looking at the material, the more certain they grew that the police had gotten it wrong.
In short order, the group began compiling their own report, disputing many of the facts and conclusions contained in the police investigation. They found it troubling that police asserted Kurmann was riding in a lane designated as a bus stop zone, despite any clear marker. For comparison, they looked at photos of other nearby bus stops, which were labeled with large white lettering. They also noted that for Levari to clear the corner, he first swung his truck into the left lane so that he could initiate the tight right-hand turn. This, they argued, was a clear violation of a law requiring that motorists make right turns from the right lane, not across another lane of traffic. Another point of debate was that while police emphasized that Levari had his turn signal on for a full eight seconds, the group argued that the video showed Kurmann was riding alongside his truck for at least 16 seconds and likely never saw his indication to turn.
Lastly, the group homed in on the fact that Levari first drove past Kurmann while she was pedaling across the bridge. From that point on, they argued, Levari had a legal obligation to be aware of and on the lookout for Kurmann. The law was clear in their eyes: A motorist who approaches and passes a cyclist may not make a right turn across the cyclist’s path where not safe to do so.
Few people knew that a ragtag crew of cycling advocates had their hands on the police investigation and were piecing through the evidence. In January, however, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition hosted a press conference to reveal their findings. The group also published edited video footage on YouTube of Kurmann being killed and called on police and prosecutors to reopen the investigation, recommending that charges of involuntary manslaughter be brought against Levari.
The startling call to action thrust the Kurmann case back into the spotlight, though not everyone in the cycling community supported the move. Some feared it made bicyclists look like they were hell-bent on revenge. Others questioned the tactfulness of publishing video footage of Kurmann’s final moments. Some worried that it would only heighten tensions between police and cyclists. Fries didn’t care. “The culture of enforcement is you blame the victim. What the hell was she doing on a bike? What the hell was she thinking?” Fries says. The footage of Kurmann’s death, he believed, was a powerful rebuttal to the official investigation and was impossible to ignore. “That video moved the needle,” he says.
Provocative as the video was, BPD stood by its conclusions and the district attorney’s office did not see any reason to revisit the case. Boston Police still won’t answer specific questions about the Kurmann investigation, except to say detectives pursued the case as they would any other potential homicide. Jake Wark, a spokesman for the DA’s office, says the cycling advocates provided no new evidence, just a reinterpretation of existing evidence. Thinking that the driver could see Kurmann in his side-view mirror is far different from being able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he could. “The burden of proof is the burden of proof. It doesn’t go up or down,” Wark says. “Prosecutors have an ethical obligation not to bring cases that can’t be proven.”
Gluck, the attorney who represented Kurmann’s family in the civil suit, declined to say much about the advocates’ investigation, but did tell me that many points raised by the group were first flagged by his own legal team, including an accident reconstructionist he’d hired and who proved essential in securing the settlement for Kurmann’s family. “Once we were able to obtain a copy of the video and have it analyzed by a highly qualified expert,” Gluck says, “that expert provided compelling evidence that the conclusion reached by the Boston Police Department was wrong. I have great respect for the Boston Police Department, but we believe they got it wrong in this case. The truck driver caused this fatality, ending the life of a talented surgeon and devoted family member.”
Today, the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street is a far cry from what it was on the morning Kurmann was killed. The stretch of road she pedaled along is now a designated bike lane, with green paint and waist-high reflective poles that prevent automobiles from cutting the corner too close when turning right. There’s a sign that orders right-turning vehicles to yield to bicycles and pedestrians, and a second sign reminding drivers of the city’s recently lowered speed limit of 25 miles per hour. Still chained to a lamppost, just a few feet from the intersection, is Kurmann’s ghost bike. “I wish I had known Anita Kurmann,” says Laura Everett, the minister who led the ghost bike dedication. “I think about her every time I go past it.”
Like anybody who rides a bike in the city, Everett knows there is no foolproof way to make the streets safe. She talks about the need for policies requiring that tractor-trailers have side guards—safety devices that help prevent cyclists from being sucked into the massive wheel wells on right hooks—and the need for more protected bike lanes throughout Boston. Change is incremental, she says, and the city has made some positive strides in the years since Kurmann’s death to improve the roads for cyclists. Still, until there’s a fundamental shift in commuter culture, drivers and bicyclists will struggle to find common ground and peaceably share the road. “There is something about Boston roads and the culture of our city that gives us permission to be absolutely dehumanizing to one another,” Everett says. “We do things to one another on our roads that we would never do to each other in the aisles of a grocery store.”
Every few months, Everett receives a message on Facebook or in an email asking her to help organize yet another ghost bike ceremony. In October 2016, it was for Bernard “Joe” Lavins, a pharmaceutical researcher who was killed by a tractor-trailer while riding through Porter Square on his morning commute. A few months later, in May 2017, it was for Rick Archer, a 29-year-old avid cyclist who was killed in a hit-and-run in the Back Bay, less than a mile from where Kurmann died. Three months after that, it was Dan Pimenta, a 53-year-old Peabody firefighter who was killed while riding his bike in Beverly.
It probably won’t be long until Everett is called on for the next ceremony. When it happens, she’ll don her black clerical shirt, white clerical collar, and golden stole, and attempt to comfort a crowd of mostly strangers who had no connection to the deceased other than a shared fondness for bicycling. “Some days we ride scared,” she’ll tell the crowd, “and some days we ride angry.”