Joel Schrantz was sentenced to 42 months in jail yesterday for his role in the death of Mitch York.
Schrantz, 43, is the man who failed to control his Toyota 4-Runner and hit York while driving onto the St. Johns Bridge on October 29th, 2016. York was waiting for a green light in the left-turn lane prior to the collision. The 55-year old resident of northeast Portland, who was on his way to one of his regular rides in the west hills, died at the scene.
“Mr. Schrantz has not had a valid driver’s license since 1992. He has not had the right to drive for a quarter of a century — but a valid driver’s license has never mattered to Mr. Schrantz.”
— Elizabeth Waner, Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney
Before the hearing I met the woman who sat with York in his final moments. Chrystal Nelson, a licensed practical nurse, just happened to drive by shortly after the collision. “I knew to bolt up there. He didn’t have a pulse, but I just held his hand. No one should have to die alone.” Since that night Nelson has become friends with Jenni York, Mitch’s widow. On Mother’s Day they met and walked to the site of the collision to place flowers on York’s ghost bike. Six months earlier, hundreds of people rolled and walked onto the bridge during a memorial ride.
At yesterday’s sentencing hearing, Nelson and York, along with about a dozen other friends, family and fellow riders who showed up to support them, listened as Multnomah County Judge Eric Bloch made his final judgment in the case. Before listening to statements from attorneys and family members on both sides, Bloch explained that Schrantz’s attorney Downing Bethune and Multnomah County Deputy DA Elizabeth Waner had negotiated a plea deal. Instead of the initial manslaughter charge, which carries a minimum 75-month sentence and a $250,000 fine, Schrantz pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. For that plea his sentence was nearly cut in half and the York family avoided an emotionally-draining jury trial while receiving the peace of mind that comes with a public admission of guilt.
As per the negotiated plea deal, Judge Bloch had a sentencing parameter of 36 to 48 months. Before making his decision, he heard DA Waner paint a picture of Schrantz as a selfish and dangerous man who deserves no leniency. Bloch also heard Bethune explain that his client was not a criminal, and that he was simply doing his best to provide for his family.
The courtroom was emotional throughout the 90-minute hearing. Schrantz’s wife, sitting directly behind him, sobbed profusely and Schrantz would frequently turn around to console her. Schrantz himself was also in tears for much of the hearing. But DA Waner was unmoved in making her case against him.
“Mr. Schrantz has not had a valid driver’s license since 1992,” Waner told Judge Bloch. “He has not had the right to drive for a quarter of a century — but a valid driver’s license has never mattered to Mr. Schrantz.”
Waner pointed out that Schrantz’s driving record is littered with at least 40 tickets for driving uninsured and without a license (he was also convicted for hit-and-run in 2015). At the scene of the collision in October, he reportedly told police officers he knew it was relatively easy to get a new license and that it was “on his to-do list.”
Here’s more from DA Waner’s presentation:
“But even with this knowledge of how easy it was to get a driver’s license… it was still easier for him to put his own selfish desires and needs, rather than take any steps towards responsible driving. It was just easier for Mr. Schrantz to continue to accrue driving while suspended tickets. Mr. Schrantz told police that driving while suspended tickets were $1,000 a pop. It was just easier to allow his cars to get impounded than to pay the ticket for the towing fee. Mr. Schr also found it was easier and cheaper to buy a used vehicle for $500 and drive that car around until the next time he was caught.
And that was exactly that course of events that led to take the life of Mitchell York. He had purchased the 4-Runner for around $500, a 4-Runner with over 300,000 miles on it and Mr. Schrantz didn’t want to pony up the money to fix the steering rod or to pay for new tires. Mr. Schrantz knew that the tires were bad, they were balding on the rear. And in fact he said his wife had warned him the car was dangerous. That he needed to stop driving the 4-Runner around because they’d been sliding around corners all the time in the wet weather. Mr. Schrantz knew the tires were bad, he new the car had been sliding, but he decided to drive anyway. And it was this decision that cost Mitchell York his life, and forever deprived an entire family of a loving husband, brother, and father.”
Waner then relayed a startling story. At a recent hearing for this case a judge asked Waner for more information about Schrantz’s 2015 hit-and-run conviction. It turned out it was the same judge who sentenced Schrantz for that offense two years ago. Waner described what happened next:
“At one point during the hearing, Judge Marshall turned to Mr. Schrantz and asked him directly if he remembered what they’d talked about at that hearing in 2015. Mr. Schrantz nodded yes. Judge Marshall then informed everyone in the court that he had warned Mr. Schrantz on that day that he needed to stop driving or he was going to kill someone. But of course he did not stop driving and now Mitchell York and his family have paid the ultimate price.”
“This was not an accident. It was his fault… the result of a lifetime pattern of negligence and recklessnesss.”
— Jenni York
Waner requested the maximum sentence for Schrantz, saying,
“In order to spare the lives of every person on the road that drives in this community, every person that rides a bicycle in this community, every pedestrian that uses the roads in this community, it is imperative that Mr. Schrantz receives a loud and clear message that he has failed to hear so many times before: That he should never drive again.”
Waner then read letters from Mitch York’s sister and daughter. At one point Waner turned directly toward Schrantz as she read this passage a letter by York’s 27-year-old daughter Carly: “You took someone’s life away. Every event in my life is now split into before and after… You are not the victim here. I am and my family is.”
Jenni York was married to Mitch for 37 years. She read a prepared statement and shared how the loss of her husband impacted her life. She also expressed outrage at Schrantz’s behavior at the scene: “What kind of a person collides with a cyclist and then, seeing him bleeding profusely, makes no attempt to help? Someone who sees himself as a perpetual victim. Someone who has never faced consequences for his reckless behaviors.”
“This was not an accident,” York continued. “It was his fault… the result of a lifetime pattern of negligence and recklessnesss.”
Given a chance to share Schrantz’s side of the case, attorney Downing Bethune disputed the reporting about his clients actions at the scene. He also told Judge Bloch that Schrantz simply accelerated too quickly and lost traction. “A very momentary lapse of measurement is what made him fishtail.”
Bethune also, quite audaciously given the facts surrounding this case, blamed Mitch York for what happened. Quoting from a crash analysis he commissioned from a retired Oregon State Police officer, Bethune said, “I’m not criticizing Mr. York in any way at all, but our investigation showed that he was further over in the lane than he should have been… My client accelerated too quickly and over-corrected and swung into that lane. Had Mr. York been where the law requires him to be, he probably would have surivived.”
Then Bethune read directly from the crash analysis report:
“Vehicle 1 was fish-tailing over an unknown distance approaching the cyclist. The cyclist should have had a few second warning. If the cyclist would have been properly positioned in the lane or would have taken evasive action, the impact may not have occurred. I consider the improper lane placement of the cyclist to be a contributing factor.”
At this point one man in the audience, who was holding a helmet and wearing bike gear, began sobbing and then walked out of the courtroom.
“Does this make Mr. York a bad guy? No. Is it right that he got killed? No. Of course it’s not and I’m not suggesting that. But what I am saying is that when we have vehicles that weigh tons and we’ve got a cyclist who weighs mere hundreds of pounds. Cyclists always use. It’s a dangerous game out there and cyclists lose every single time.”
Bethune went on to explain that he was an avid bicycle rider in his youth and even organized rides with the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club. “I’m very well aware of how dangerous it can be when cars and bicyclists share the road. And the fact is, we all have to share the road.”
Schrantz deserves mercy and a sentence of the minimum 36 months, Bethune argued, because he was trying to support his family and chose to “put a roof over his family’s head” instead of paying for things like tickets or a safer vehicle. He called the circumstances, “Just a fact of life we’re going to have to deal with as a society.”
Judge Bloch ultimately decided Schrantz deserves a 42 month sentence and a $125,000 fine. In his closing statement he said Schrantz created an “unreasonable risk” the day he hit Mitch York. “That unreasonable risk you created that day, might have gone unnoticed without consequences,” Bloch continued. “But on that day that unreasonable risk you created had a consequence. And the consequence was the death of a human being.”
Bloch told Schrantz that he had lost the necessary “balance” between providing for his own family’s health and well-being while also respecting the safety needs of the greater community around him. He then said Schrantz should have been using mass transit instead of driving. “I know people who are in the building trades [Schrantz is a carpenter] who take their tools on the bus. They committed to strike that balance between their own well-being and their own desire to provide for the well-being of their family and the needs of a civilized society where people follow the rules… When that balance falls away, consequences occur.”
“You were warned Mr. Schrantz,” Bloch continued. “You were warned with every citation you were issued, with every admonition that a judge gave you… To put it bluntly, you are a bit hard-headed about this issue and so there has to be a clear message that from this point forward this behavior is not going to be tolerated or accepted or minimized by any judge.”