A San Francisco Cyclist's 'Amazing Renaissance' -- and Sudden Death

A ghost bike stands in memory of 66-year-old Charles Vinson, who was killed by a driver at the intersection of 14th and Folsom streets in San Francisco on March 2. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Charles Vinson was having an "amazing renaissance" in his life, discovering the joys of bicycling and composing music, when he was killed by a driver while riding his bicycle in San Francisco nearly three months ago.

Vinson, 66, was fatally struck March 2 on 14th Street at Folsom, an intersection that bicycle advocates have described as confusing and in dire need of safety improvements. It's been identified as a high-injury intersection under Vision Zero, the city's program to end traffic deaths in 10 years.

Until now, not much was publicly known about Vinson. His longtime partner, Jeff Jones, a bicycle messenger, says Vinson had just finished a weekly ritual, helping his 83-year-old neighbor get groceries at Foods Co., near the same intersection. He returned to his Mission Dolores apartment, "put on his biking shorts, and never came home."

A witness told the San Francisco Examiner that the driver, who stayed at the scene, blew through a red light. But last month Officer Albie Esparza, a Police Department spokesman, said the investigation was closed after it was determined "the person found to be most responsible/at fault was the bicyclist." However, on Monday SFPD Inspector Lori Cadigan, who is handling the investigation, confirmed the case was still open.

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Bike advocates are watching the case because they say San Francisco police have a history of blaming the victim in collisions involving cyclists. After the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition found security camera video that police had missed as they investigated the death of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac in 2013, Police Chief Greg Suhr promised to treat these kinds of cases differently. New protocol requires officers to canvass the area surrounding a collision for video.

Esparza said investigators did search for video in Vinson's case, and found some at Foods Co. But he said it was shot from too far away to see anything. Vinson's sister has retained a San Francisco attorney, who would not comment because the investigation is still open.

A ghost bike stands at the intersection where 66-year-old Charles Vinson was killed by a driver March 2.
Bike advocates say the intersection of 14th and Folsom, which sees a lot of bicycle traffic, is confusing and in need of safety improvements. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

A Frantic Scene

It was San Francisco Sheriff's Deputy Isaias Zaragoza's first day back to work after three months of recovering from injuries he suffered in a traffic collision in Pacifica, after he tried to help a driver who ran off the road. On March 2, he and his partner were returning from lunch when they noticed a group of people at the intersection of 14th and Folsom streets. They saw a bicycle off to the side, and realized it was a collision.

A woman who identified herself as an ER nurse, and was getting her car repaired nearby, rushed to Vinson's side, and was about to do chest compressions when Zaragoza arrived. "She was hysterical. She was asking for help," says Zaragoza, adding he was disturbed that some people were taking photos of the frantic scene instead of helping.

"I told her, 'Let me take over.' I assessed Mr. Vinson and there wasn't a pulse and he wasn't breathing. My training kicked in. Without thinking, we just went to work," Zaragoza says.

The deputy's office at the Sheriff's Department's training unit is nearby, and several other deputies alarmed by the commotion responded to the scene. Eventually, Zaragoza's partner took over CPR. Then they heard sirens and the paramedics arrived.

"I heard when the medics took over, he did have a pulse. That comforted me," Zaragoza says. "I'm hoping the aid myself and my co-workers gave him at least gave him a fighting chance."

The 16-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department says he later called San Francisco General Hospital to find out Vinson's condition, and learned later through media reports that he had died.

"That just floored me," Zaragoza says. "Hopefully, the family can get some closure out of this, and I'll be right there behind them."

If there was a hero that day, Zaragoza says, it was the nurse who rushed to Vinson's side and didn't hesitate to help.

Jeff Jones loves his job as a bicycle messenger.
Jeff Jones (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

A Race to the Hospital 

Jeff Jones says that when he graduated from college in the 1970s, he was "hell bent" to be the next David Ogilvy -- the man often credited with creating the modern advertising industry. But after several years, he gave up the office grind to become a bike messenger. At 62, he still loves the work.

"I just really enjoy being a bike messenger," Jones says. "I realized many years ago that I'm not in this world to be rich. I'll just live frugally the rest of my life and that's fine with me."

Jones was delivering a box to an office tower in the Financial District when he received a call from a number he didn't recognize. It was someone from San Francisco General Hospital, telling him Vinson was in critical condition.

"I went into total shock," says Jones. "I just hopped on my bike and screamed down to SFGH emergency room, and the next two or three hours were surreal."

Jones says a doctor informed him that Vinson, who had been wearing a helmet, was in dire condition, unconscious and bleeding internally. He had suffered a traumatic head injury, and doctors performed emergency cranial surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Jones declined an invitation to be with him, "because the image of that would have haunted me for eternity."

"I wanted to remember him the way he was two days earlier, which was beautiful, and vivacious," Jones says.

A photo of Charles Vinson in his San Francisco apartment.
A photo of Charles Vinson (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

A Renaissance

Jones met Vinson through a mutual friend on Thanksgiving of 1997, and discovered they had chemistry. They were together for the next 17 years.

"It was a very comfortable relationship," says Jones, who loved to sit and observe Vinson composing music, one of his main passions. Vinson studied music in his earlier years and had a voracious appetite for classical music.

"I thought of him as a musical genius, but he never thought of himself as a genius," Jones says.

Although they didn't live together, they spent a lot of time at Vinson's Mission Dolores apartment. "We were very happy living apart from each other," Jones says.

He says he especially misses the routine of talking to Vinson on the phone every day at 9:30 in the morning and 9:30 at night. "I just loved hearing his voice."

Vinson was born in West Virginia, and knew he was gay when he was 10 years old, Jones says. But he grew up in a religious family and felt "pressure to play by the script of his church." He married a college classmate and had a son, who is now 44.

Jones says Vinson worked for many years for Pacific Bell, which later became AT&T. He retired in 2007.

Jeff Jones and Charles Vinson.
Jeff Jones and Charles Vinson (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Over the years, Vinson battled alcoholism and got by on his retirement savings and meager Social Security benefits, with some occasional freelance writing work. He suffered from deep depression and had been resigned “to a life of the sort of slow march to death.”

But then, Jones says, it was like a switch flipped on: Vinson got sober two years ago and began having "an amazing renaissance in his life." He radically changed his diet and lost 30 pounds.

"The last couple of years his whole personality was really blossoming. He seemed happier. He was really enjoying riding his bike," says Jones. "It was just his cat, his music and his bike riding. Those were the things in his life that mattered to him."

Every morning, Vinson would get up, have his coffee and then go on a 10- to 15-mile ride. It was always the highlight of his day, Jones says. He alternated routes and regularly passed 14th and Folsom streets as part of his Mission route.

"He was an experienced rider, and he knew vividly about the inherent dangers of riding anywhere on city streets," says Jones. "He was always talking about all the close calls that he saw of cyclists and motorists."

Jones has been too grief-stricken to find out the details of the collision, and has avoided that intersection.

"I don't know what happened," Jones says. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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Wednesday evening, as part of the annual Ride of Silence to honor bicyclists who have been killed on San Francisco streets, he plans to visit the intersection for the first time since Vinson's death.

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