ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Laguna Pueblo man pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and admitted “just not paying attention” when he fatally struck a 19-year-old Pennsylvania cyclist riding cross-country for charity.
But Gilbert Waconda expressed little remorse and offered no apology to the dead teenager’s father, who traveled from Pennsylvania to attend the hearing Tuesday at Pueblo of Laguna tribal court.
Waconda, 58, who faces a maximum of six months in jail for the misdemeanor charge, told a tribal court judge that he was responding to a “tribal emergency” when he struck John Anczarski Jr. on N.M. 124, a stretch of Old Route 66 west of Laguna in June 2010.
Waconda alleged that Anczarski swerved into the vehicle’s path – a version that contradicts a State Police reconstruction officer’s findings.
Many bicyclists ride on the historic road, Waconda said. “I ride one, too, but I don’t ride all over the road,” he said.
The report determined that the right tire of Waconda’s vehicle was 19 inches outside the white line on the shoulder at the time of the collision.
“This kid came out in front of me,” Waconda told Pueblo of Laguna Chief Judge Peggy Bird. “I caught him on the right front quarter panel.”
Waconda’s sentencing hearing is scheduled Feb. 4.
Anczarski’s father, John Anczarski Sr., who arrived from Ringtown, Pa., this week, said he was disappointed by Waconda’s lack of remorse.
“He’s not sorry for what he did,” Anczarski said after the hearing. “Because if he was, he would have just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He couldn’t even utter those words.”
Anczarski also said he was disappointed by the plea agreement and would have preferred Waconda stand trial, which could have divulged details of his son’s death.
After the hearing, Anczarski visited the site of the collision and knelt at the site where his son was fatally struck. The site is marked by a “ghost bike” memorial maintained by members of Laguna Pueblo and New Mexico’s cycling community.
Carlos Pacheco, Laguna Pueblo’s chief prosecutor, said the plea agreement “seemed to be the best resolution to ensure accountability for Waconda.”
Laguna Pueblo prosecutors had charged Waconda earlier this year with charges of homicide by vehicle and reckless driving. If convicted, he could have faced a maximum of one year in jail – the maximum penalty allowed in tribal courts.
Convicting Waconda of homicide by vehicle would have required prosecutors to show that Waconda was driving recklessly, meaning he knew he was driving dangerously when he struck the cyclist.
“Prosecutors have a very high burden to prove” to show recklessness, Pacheco said. “I was uncomfortable with the risk of him walking away” without a conviction.
Anczarski Jr. was one of four bicyclists riding across country to raise money for breast cancer research on June 21, 2010, when he was fatally injured. He was airlifted to University of New Mexico Hospital where he remained alive on a ventilator for three days.
In September 2011 – 15 months after Anczarski’s death – U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales announced that his office lacked evidence to pursue felony charges against Waconda.
In a letter to Anczarski’s parents, Gonzales wrote that the fact that Waconda was driving on the shoulder of the highway did not prove “that Mr. Waconda’s conduct rose to the level of recklessness” – an element required for a federal manslaughter conviction.
Pueblo of Laguna police who initially responded to the accident failed to obtain a blood sample from Waconda, according to a report written by a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator.
The day of the crash, Waconda was transported to a hospital for an “anxiety attack” where two vials of his blood were drawn, the BIA investigator wrote. The samples were tested in January 2011 by an out-of-state lab that reported no evidence of alcohol or drug use.
Pacheco said Waconda admitted the main elements of negligent homicide at his plea hearing on Tuesday, though he stopped short of expressing remorse.
“Whether a person is remorseful, we have no control over that,” Pacheco said. “The judge can take that into account at sentencing.”
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— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal