FedEx driver Jason James Fletcher pleaded no contest and paid a $260 traffic ticket last month for crashing into Portland resident Norma Gabriel while she was crossing a downtown Milwaukie intersection on April 26.
Gabriel, 83, was rushed by ambulance to Oregon Health & Science University, where she died from her injuries on May 10.
"I can't believe you could take someone's life and walk away from it with only a $260 fine," said Nelson's Nautilus Plus Milwaukie manager Angie Reynolds, an Oregon City resident who saw Gabriel every week as a patron of the exercise facility.
Multiple attempts to reach Fletcher for comment have been unsuccessful, but Oregon court records show that the 48-year-old Lake Oswego resident has also paid a total of $2,073 for 44 parking tickets in the past 10 years.
"It appears that paying tickets is just part of the cost of doing business for FedEx," said Carolyn Tomei, a former Milwaukie mayor and longtime state representative.
It wasn't just the fine amount that has shaken the local community, though. A news release was never issued regarding the case, so the circumstances surrounding Gabriel's death have remained mostly rumor until now.
According to the corporate office, FedEx talked with the Milwaukie Police Department soon after the incident, when officers initially declined to issue a traffic ticket. It was only after Gabriel died in the hospital that police reconstructed the scene of the crash and issued the citation.
FedEx apparently wasn't notified when Fletcher was charged, nor when he paid the fine. In fact, a FedEx corporate spokesperson said she first found out about the developments when she was contacted by the Pamplin Media Group on June 28.
"Our deepest sympathy is extended to the family over the loss of their loved one," said FedEx spokesperson Heather Wilson. "We are looking into additional information about this incident and will withhold further comment pending the outcome of our investigation."
Wilson declined to say whether corporate policy would call for the firing of a FedEx driver who hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Milwaukie resident Benedicta Foley witnessed the FedEx van about to hit Gabriel, but Foley told police that she couldn't bear to watch the van make contact and turned away before it actually hit Gabriel. Foley told police she saw Gabriel having trouble getting off the curb and moving very slowly into the crosswalk. After Foley turned away, she said, she heard a "thump." And when she turned back around, she saw Gabriel on the ground bleeding.
Fletcher was turning left from Southeast 21st Avenue into the Milwauke Transit Center on Jackson Street when he hit Gabriel, a resident of Sellwood. In a 911 call a minute later, he admitted to hitting Gabriel in the crosswalk. When the 911 dispatcher asked Fletcher what happened, he said, "She's very short. I didn't see her over the ... hood of my truck."
According to a copy of the police report originally obtained by Tomei, officers decided to cite Fletcher for failure to yield, and police declined to take further action.
Tomei knew Gabriel as a fellow Nelson's Nautilus member. Tomei walks with her 4-year-old great-grandson to the library every Friday and crosses using the same crosswalk where Gabriel was killed. Tomei now worries that her great-grandson might be as vulnerable as Gabriel in terms of being small and unseen.
"In my 51 years living in Milwaukie, I have never heard of anyone being killed downtown in the transit center, much less in a crosswalk," Tomei said. "Frankly, I can't understand how this has been handled so quietly and casually, nor why the disability community has not been alerted and involved."
In the aftermath
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba said that he will advocate that the City close the transit center to non-bus through traffic in light of the collision. Gamba also is working on a Vision Zero plan with the City Council to develop funding sources and construction projects to make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, with the goal of zero
pedestrian fatalities in the future.
Earlier this month, the entire Milwaukie City Council apologized for the City's response to the accident. Councilors Angel Falconer and Wilda Parks both said they assumed information received by City officials would be released to the public.
"I was very disturbed by what happened," Falconer said, "but I have to also acknowledge that I was in a position where I wasn't sure if I should broadcast what had happened."
Gamba said traffic crashes that cause injuries should always garner news releases from the police department.
"At the very least, we should start doing a better job recording where accidents occur, and we need to look at a process around the transparency," Gamba said. "It's pretty hard to get everyone riled up to solve a problem if they don't even know there's a problem to begin with."
The FexEx Mercedes Sprinter van hit Gabriel in broad daylight. However, police said there was no evidence that Fletcher was driving while using a cellphone or driving under the influence of intoxicants.
Milwaukie Police Chief Steve Bartol said that the officers on scene waited to issue a citation because they hadn't heard the 911 tapes in which the FedEx driver admitted to hitting Gabriel in the crosswalk. Bartol said that police at the time lacked probable cause to perform searches and seizures legally.
"At the time of the incident, there was no indication to us that this was going to be a serious injury or fatal accident," Bartol said. "There is no motivation for the police department to cover that up."
Josh Lamborn, a former Multnomah County deputy district attorney who runs an injury law firm in Portland, said it is "pretty typical" of law enforcement to issue a citation for failing to yield in a case like this.
"This isn't a high-speed area; it's a place where you'd expect to find pedestrians," Lamborn said. "But it would be very hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt here a criminal act."
It would be a waste of taxpayer money to try to prosecute Fletcher for criminally negligent homicide, Lamborn said.
"Juries understand that people make mistakes, and they can all think about times when they have been driving and have not seen someone in a crosswalk, but luckily didn't hit anyone," Lamborn said.
Gabriel was a widow and mother of two, on her way to catch a bus home to Sellwood when she was hit by the car.
Despite suffering from progressively crippling scoliosis and bent over by her increasingly curved spine, Gabriel pulled a rolling suitcase, which also carried her swimsuit and towel, to help her balance and get to bus stops.
"She was quite the character, and it was just tragic what happened to her," said her neighbor, Pete Walker.
According to several interviews with her friends, Gabriel was never heard complaining about her physical condition and she always prided herself on being well-dressed for her 9:30 a.m. Monday classes at Nelson's Nautilus Plus Milwaukie.
For every workout, she wore capri pants and fuzzy socks, matching in pink, blue or
purple. Steve Baer, a fellow club member, acted as the "judge" of Gabriel's workout outfits.
Another member of Nelson's Nautilus looked forward to every Monday when Gabriel would tell him to "have a terrible day." He said that he could count on having a good day as long as Gabriel told him to have an awful one.