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LINCOLN SQUARE — For the third time this month, Chicagoans are in mourning after a driver hit and killed a bicyclist — and some are angry police have not charged the driver despite evidence she was intoxicated.
About 8 p.m. Monday, Don Heggemann, 59, a popular ceramics artist and beloved friend, was riding north in the 5100 block of North Damen Avenue when a 30-year-old woman driving in the same direction “accidentally” hit him in the bike lane, police said in an incident report.
Heggemann, of Edgewater, died a short time later, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The driver, who was speeding and fled the scene before being stopped by responding officers, submitted to a Breathalyzer test, which showed a blood-alcohol concentration of .20, according to the police report. The legal limit is .08.
The driver was taken to a hospital for a blood and urine test but refused, according to the police report.
Police released the driver without charges Wednesday pending further investigation, a department spokesperson said. Police did not answer further questions.
Block Club is not naming the driver because she has not been charged with a crime.
“I’m really confused why they were released,” said Kim Ambriz, chair of the art and design department at Northeastern Illinois University, where Heggemann worked. “There were witnesses who saw it and emailed me, and she was drinking.”
Bike and safe street advocates said they were shocked to hear the driver was released. It’s an example of how the entire system — from crash investigations to law enforcement to safer infrastructure — is flawed, they said.
“Obviously, the driver should not have killed this person and should not have been driving drunk, and they should be held accountable for their actions. But we should also be holding the system accountable because this is not like a one-off incident,” said Rony Islam, a bicyclist and founding organizer of Bike Grid Now. Supporters of Bike Grid Now want 10 percent of Chicago streets prioritized for pedestrians and cyclists.
Bicycle advocates, neighbors and some elected officials have long called for safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians, better bike infrastructure and a more aggressive bicycling plan from the city.
Although protected bike lanes are being installed in stretches of the city, the program is not equitable and not enough, Islam said.
Heggemann is at least the third Chicago bicyclist killed by a driver this month.
Portage Park teen Joshua Anleu Buendia, a student at Schurz High School, died two days after a driver hit him while biking in in the 5300 block of West Waveland Avenue, according to the medical examiner’s office.
James Bowman, 52, of Belmont Cragin, was killed after a driver hit him Tuesday morning in suburban Melrose Park, a police spokesman said.
Drivers have killed at least five bicyclists in Chicago this year, not counting the Melrose Park crash, according to city data.
This month’s deaths have sparked a renewed sense of urgency and fear among the cycling community. Every time there is news about another fatality, others worry it could be someone they know — or it could be them next, Islam said.
“There’s a very elevated sense of tension that we’re always trapped in and we are belittled by drivers who talk down to us and by legislators who don’t hear our concerns,” he said.
‘A Big Hole’
Ambriz and department staff are planning a gathering Tuesday at the North Park campus for students and colleagues to honor Heggemann and grieve.
“We are pretty devastated,” Ambriz said. “He was the first person you would see when you came to the office. He worked with students, faculty [and] was a studio assistant. There is really big hole here.”
Heggemann, originally from a town outside St. Louis, was a passionate ceramics artist who had been active in the university’s department since 2010, Ambriz said. Last year, he became a full-time employee as the department’s administrative assistant.
Witty and always making people laugh, Heggemann was dedicated to his craft and helping other students learn, Ambriz said.
Dubhe Carreno, another teacher and friend of Heggemann’s for over a decade, said in a letter to department staff that Heggemann’s clay creations and ceramic-themed Halloween costumes made everyone laugh so hard.
Some of Heggemann’s work included a 4 foot-tall baby giraffe, a ceramic leg of ham and the backside of a life-size deer to hang on a wall as a “trophy,” Carreno wrote.
“Don and I had lunch together every Tuesday and Thursday at NEIU cafeteria, and I know he was happy to have a job where his efforts to do a good job were appreciated,” Cerreno wrote. “I can’t imagine coming back to work without Don.”
Heggemann was working on a set of mugs that Carreno plans to finish in his honor and send to his family, Ambriz said.
Heggemann’s family traveled to Chicago this week to collect his work and said people can donate to the school’s ceramics program if they wish to honor his life, the university’s interim president said in a message to staff.
Contributions may be made to the ceramics program online. Under “Designation,” select “Other” and enter “Ceramics program,” then complete the form as prompted.
Heggemann’s family is planning a memorial Nov. 15 at Lakeview Funeral Home, 1458 W. Belmont Ave., and one in Missouri. They could not immediately be reached for comment.
‘Starting To Ask Questions’
Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising who also installs ghost bikes after deadly crashes, said Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration has been slow to address bicyclist safety and to replace Gia Biagi, the Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner who left the job in July.
In the wake of recent deaths, Whitehouse said the city needs to address the issue as soon as possible — and that can start with city employees not parking in bike lanes.
Johnson supported the Bike Grid Now proposal while campaigning. He has said he wants to fully invest in biking infrastructure and safer streets — once biking from the West Side to make that point — saying the city needs more dedicated streets with slow speeds and protected bike lanes, WBEZ reported.
But Johnson’s support among the cycling community may be waning as more crashes occur in bike lanes and on trails, advocates said.
“There are a lot of people in the cycling community who were [critical] in getting the mayor elected and now are starting to ask questions on to why there has not been movement there,” Whitehouse said.
A spokesperson for the mayor said the administration is taking active steps toward increased safety, with “more miles of protected lanes and low-stress bikeways installed this year than ever before.” This includes projects like the Augusta Boulevard Complete Streets Project, the Belmont Avenue Complete Streets project and the ongoing Central Park Avenue improvements in Garfield Park.
“The City of Chicago is committed to making our streets as safe as possible, particularly for vulnerable road users, including children, seniors, and people walking and biking,” Ronnie Reese, a spokesperson for Johnson, said in a statement. “Any time a life is lost in a traffic crash, it is a tragedy for loved ones and our entire city.”
Islam and his team are working to create Bike Grid Now legislation they can present to City Council.
Another bike safety measure, the Fatal Crash Legacy Ordinance, goes into effect at the end of the year. Spearheaded by Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), it will require a detailed investigation after a fatal crash to identify contributing factors, and the transportation department will have to create a list of safety improvements for that area.
“If someone is killed on the street, there has to be a post-crash investigation and there has to be a plan to address the [street infrastructure],” Whitehouse said. “We need that.”
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