Driver will not be charged in death of Johnstown musician

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Text Size: A | A

— The driver of the vehicle that struck and killed musician Ed Lakata Tuesday morning will face no charges, according to Fulton County Sheriff Thomas Lorey.

“It was an accident in the truest sense of the word,” he said.

John Damphier, 48, of Johnstown, was driving his Chevy pickup northbound along Route 29A at 9:26 a.m. when the accident happened, according to Lorey.

At the time, Lakata was also riding north on a high-end Trek bicycle from his Johnstown home to a camp on Caroga Lake. As the truck neared, Lakata was pedaling up a steep incline between West State Street and Willie Road, a place known locally as Mary-Jane Peck Hill.

“He was having a hard time,” Lorey said. “[Damphier] said the bike started to wobble and wobbled right into the side of the truck.”

Lakata was thrown from the bike and killed on impact. Deputies were on the scene shortly after, but there was nothing they could do.

Lorey said the solid white line between the shoulder and driving lane is used to determine fault in such circumstances. He said if Damphier had crossed that line before the crash, he would be facing charges. Similarly, if Lakata crossed into the driving lane, he would be to blame.

“We investigated the crash,” he said. “The accident happened very near the white line, but we couldn’t gather proof that anyone crossed over.”

In the absence of such proof, it was ruled an accident, especially since Damphier was not exceeding the 55 mph speed limit.

Lorey also pointed out that Lakata wasn’t wearing a helmet or any reflective safety clothing at the time. Such gear could have protected him from the impact or even the crash itself.

In the hours after the crash, sheriff’s investigators on the scene had difficulty identifying the body. Lakata wasn’t carrying a wallet.

“He did have a cellphone,” Lorey said. “Everybody has a cellphone these days.”

Investigators just called a few of the contacts in the phone.

“We didn’t say what had happened — just that we found a phone and needed to know who it belonged to,” Lorey said.

Lorey recommended people program three ICE, or “in case of emergency,” contacts into their phones. While just calling random contacts worked in this case, Lorey said, first-responders have an easier time contacting next of kin when they’re clearly labeled.

The Lakata family could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but the staff of A.G. Cole Funeral Home on East Main Street in Johnstown confirmed that calling hours will be held there from 5 to 8 p.m. today.

Share story: print print email email facebook facebook reddit reddit


June 27, 2013
9:31 a.m.
ChuckD says...

If what Sheriff Lorey is reported to have stated is true, the implication is he doesn't understand the rules of the road very well. His statement implies that cyclists cannot ride in the traffic lane, or left of the white line. In fact the DMV makes very clear that cyclist may share the lane (it also makes very clear cyclists must wear a helmet, which sadly was not the case here).

As an avid cyclist for many years, I can attest to many drivers who both don't give cyclists enough room when passing, and can often act in an intimidating manner toward them. I have had cars pass me within a a foot or so at very high speeds when there was no reason to be that close. It's real and it happens. I'm not saying that's the case here but it does seem Sheriff Lorey is not seeing both sides of the situation and possibly showing a bias.

June 27, 2013
2:19 p.m.
Bumblebeedave says...

Unfortunately, what ChuckD says is true. Cyclists have a clear legal right to share the lane, and drivers have clear responsibility to share it with them without hitting or killing them.

As an experienced cyclist myself for many years (5000 miles last year) it always amazes me how drivers are so often unwilling to give cyclists any space—or to take their foot off the gas for even an instant to wait for oncoming traffic to clear so they can move left a bit to give a cyclist more room. They would rather hit me than be delayed for even a few seconds--or at least that's the obvious inference. While I feel most of them act out of ignorance, it's also obvious from other, more blatant behaviors that many also just don't care.

I also find it interesting that Sheriff Lorey is quoted as saying it was "an accident in the truest sense of the word" and yet is quoted later in the same story pointing out that Lakata wasn't wearing a helmet or "reflective safety clothing." The net effect is to imply that Lakata himself was at fault, even though a helmet would almost certainly have done him no good when hit by a car at over 50mph--and "reflective" safety clothing would have done him no good at 9:25am in full daylight.

I’m also at a loss to understand what different it makes that the cyclist was on a “high-end” bike, except to imply again that he was a serious cyclist and should have been wearing a helmet and reflective clothing.

Lastly, The only witness who is quoted by the sheriff--saying that Lakata "wobbled” on his bike and swerved into traffic—is the driver of the car that hit and killed him. Not exactly the most reliable source for an unbiased description of the incident, now is it?

This story repeats the pattern of bias I see repeatedly in stories about cycling injuries and fatalities. It implies ignorance of cyclists lawful rights on the road by law enforcement officers and makes insinuations that the cyclist’s injury or death was his or her own fault. Meanwhile, it presents only one side of the story because the “other” source—the cyclist—is ignored by the reporting officer, either because they are injured and unconscious or dead. The story makes many unmerited assumptions and implications that serve to exempt the driver from any blame and shift blame to the cyclist, even while calling it an “accident.”

It’s a poorly written story that repeats all the same biases I’ve seen many, many times. My condolences to Mr. Lakata’s family and friends.

June 29, 2013
6:55 p.m.
ChuckD says...

Just a couple follow-up points, for the record on this.
Putting aside the ridiculous comment about reflective clothing (at 9:45 am?), Sheriff Lorey states that Damphier claims the bike started to wobble and wobbled right into the side of the truck. He further states fault could not be assigned because the accident happened so close to the white line. This begs the question why was Damphier passing a cyclist so close to the white line and not giving them more room? Whether he was 'wobbling' or not, Damphier doesn't seem to have given the cyclist much room for error. This is a standard state road with good shoulders. Even with approaching traffic there should be ample room for a considerate driver to give some to the cyclist. There's certainly reason to be suspicious if the accident happened so close to the white line.
Did Sheriff Lorey consider this?
"Everybody has a cell phone these days". Was Damphier's checked for usage while he was driving? Was he possibly distracted? That's an easy thing for law enforcement to do, if they're motivated to get the truth.
Last point (for now): interesting what you can find out about both Damphier and Lorey, seems they had some ...common interests. I suspect the cards were stacked against Mr. Lakata from the get-go. Life (and death) in a small town, I guess. Many, I suspect, will be watching Sheriff Lorey for how he interprets law enforcement. His past public displays of belligerence demand this and in this case there are too many open questions. It's not passing the smell test, Sheriff.

July 2, 2013
12:28 a.m.
jdar777 says...

Any responsible driver should know, especially if they are experienced in anticipating actions of others, that when approaching a bicycle your speed should be reduced and toe should be on brake. Bicycles cannot straddle objects and may "wobble". Bicyclists are unprotected when approached by a two-ton vehicle. Respect for the life of others should compel us to use wisdom and share the road with other vehicles (see CH 11 in NYS Driver's Manual). We have become complacent and reckless in our behavior. I have seen drivers deliberately try to run a bicyclist off the road while hollering at them to get on the sidewalk. We all have to rethink our behavior behind the wheel. Very few crashes are truly unavoidable "accidents".

July 2, 2013
3:57 p.m.
robbump says...

If Sheriff Loray is so ignorant of traffic law regarding bicycles, he should resign.
The last sentence in the previous post ("Very few crashes..") is so true.

July 4, 2013
9:15 a.m.
cuddihy518 says...

There is no evidence either crossed the white line? Yet one person is dead and we are simply accepting the account provided by driver?

I agree this story does not pass the smell test. Our newspaper has a responsibility to dig a little deeper. Te Sheriff owes us a better explanation, and perhaps an additional law enforcement agency needs to get to the bottom of this.

Log-in to post a comment.

columnists & blogs

Log into

Forgot Password?