For 4 cyclists, life’s ride ended in a flash
Accidents on city streets claimed eclectic, active lives
By JACOB QUINN SANDERS Issue date: Fri, Dec 30, 2005
Four bicyclists died on Portland streets in 2005.
It’s not an unusual number — four died in 2003, five in 2001.
They were killed in all parts of the city — North, Northeast, Southeast, downtown. Only one of the four was determined by Portland police to have been at fault in the crashes that took their lives. And in keeping with the average modern-day Portlander, none of them was born in the city.
But even in bike-mad Portland, it can be easy to forget those riders once had names, faces, friends and families. Aside from the memorial rides organized in their honor, there is little public accounting of who they were.
These are their stories.
• • •
Noah Cardamon could play the didgeridoo.
He learned it when he was 9 after he saw a San Francisco street musician play one. His first one was homemade, from PVC pipe, which he used until his father bought him a real one for Christmas.
His grandmother home-schooled him for several years in Corvallis, where he moved after being born with the aid of a midwife at a house in Sunnyvale, Calif. As a child, he loved to draw. He also loved animals.
He moved in with his single father, Thomas Cardamon Jr., when he was 8.
Only 23 when he died, Cardamon never finished high school but always seemed to have a job, sometimes more than one. Video store clerk, bartender, Beaterville Cafe waiter.
He kept his hair cut short, which only made his brown eyes look bigger. His looks reflected his mother’s heritage: half-black and part American Indian.
He kept journals that his family would not see until after his death.
“We didn’t really know until we read his journals how talented he was,” his father said.
He struggled with alcohol, his father said — working as a bartender didn’t help — and planned to quit his jobs and take work fishing in Alaska for the summer.
“I found the list of clothes and supplies he was going to need in his messenger bag,” Thomas Cardamon said.
He planned on going to a school for bicycle mechanics in Ashland after he got back from Alaska.
Cardamon loved his bike, built it himself from the frame up.
And the messenger bag his father found went with him everywhere. It was on his back May 30 when his bicycle veered into a car at Southeast 49th Avenue and Stark Street around 2 a.m. He was not wearing a helmet.
Two teenage girls in the car initially told police they found Cardamon already on the ground, later admitting being involved in the accident. Cardamon’s blood-alcohol level was .33, according to the autopsy, more than quadruple the legal limit of .08. The driver of the car, too young to drink legally, had a blood-alcohol content of .02. A Multnomah County grand jury declined to charge the girls.
“I still don’t know if Noah was alive after they hit him or what his last words may have been,” Thomas Cardamon said. “I wish I knew exactly what happened.”
• • •
Kristine Okins was not reticent. Never. Not once.
Not about baking, not about graphic design. And certainly not about transportation.
She came to Portland by boxcar, train-hopping her way from Minnesota with a pair of friends. Both of her sisters, one older and one younger, also found their way to Portland, though Mom and Dad stayed home in a town called Windom.
A graphic designer by training — she attended the Perpich Center of Arts Education and had a bachelor’s from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design — she became a bicycle messenger in Portland.
She loved her bike and reveled in the freedom of her job, never seriously considering owning a car.
But hers wasn’t the passive enjoyment of a leisurely soft-pedal ride. Her boyfriend, Billy Bleichner, known as “Spaceman,” noticed that even her wavy red hair was aggressive.
“If you knew her you knew she was a real adorable badass, and also the sweetest most gentle and sincere girl ever made,” he wrote in a message at a Web site he set up in her memory.
She was a passionate bicyclist — Bleichner was a mechanic at River City Bicycles until moving after her death to Australia; they built a bike together — and was working when she was hit.
Around 9:15 a.m. June 27, Okins, 25, was on her bike, in the bike lane, facing south on Southwest Broadway at a red light at Washington Street, a Freightliner semitruck next to her. As always, she wore a helmet. The light turned green, both started south, and Okins darted ahead of the semi, which had in tow a 45-foot-long trailer loaded with metal.
Approaching Alder Street, witnesses saw Okins and her bike under the truck, which police estimated was traveling five miles per hour. When police arrived, she was conscious and talking to paramedics. Taken to Oregon Health & Science University, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She died the next day. The driver of the truck was not charged.
• • •
Frank Vanerstrom, 44, was killed Aug. 1 on the northbound Delta Park onramp of Interstate 5. Police described him as a transient with no real ties to Portland. He had several addresses in Vancouver, Wash., through the last five years. No family or friends could be located.
The day after Vanerstrom’s death, police arrested George C. Hoff, 51, of Longview, Wash. Hoff’s teal 1996 Mitsubushi Eclipse matched the description witnesses gave police of the car that killed Vanerstrom. It had front-end damage. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter and felony hit-and-run.
He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge just before Christmas and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 36 months’ probation and revocation of his driver’s license for five years.
• • •
Christopher Burris liked bringing people together. He especially liked it when it was his music that brought them together.
The drummer for two Portland alt-rock bands, Burris never did anything half as loud away from his music.
He was shy, goofy, calm. He had a dry wit.
“He would make these offhanded comments, and you’d have to listen real closely to get the joke,” his oldest brother, Forrest Burris, said. “But still it was so subtle it probably wouldn’t hit you until later.”
The youngest of three boys, Burris, 21, grew up in Jefferson and lived for a while in Eugene before making his home in Portland. His fundamental philosophy was to live his life in such a way that it had no negative impact on others.
He rode his bike rather than driving a car. He converted his 24-foot-long box truck to run on waste vegetable oil, and it withstood even his touring with his bands. He held hours-long conversations with transients, just so they would know someone was listening.
“He just made my life and my daughter’s life so much better,” his girlfriend, Lori Casey, said.
Casey, 23 and known to her friends as “Chakra,” said Burris was far more mature than his 21 years suggested.
“Everybody else looked at my daughter as baggage, as something they had to get over,” she said. “Chris wanted to adopt her.”
Chakra and Burris rode their bikes together often, usually with her 4-year-old daughter, Abi, trailing behind on wheels of her own.
Such was the case Sept. 3, when around 2 a.m. Chakra, Burris and Abi rode north on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Wygant Street, both riding in the street.
Burris asked her to move up on the sidewalk with Abi. She did. A few beats later, a dark-colored Nissan slammed into Burris and drove off. He died instantly.
The next day, police arrested Anthony Troy Saunders, 41, and took his damaged graphite-colored 2005 Nissan Ultima as evidence. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter and felony hit-and-run; his trial could begin as early as next month.