Driver faces manslaughter trial in fatal Guerneville bike crash

A judge ordered Cazadero resident Jonathan Ritter to face trial on felony manslaughter and hit-and-run charges last week after two days of pretrial testimony in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Cazadero resident Jonathan Ritter hit a bicyclist on the shoulder of Highway 116 last August.

Ritter’s speeding BMW careened into a bicyclist standing alongside Highway 116 in Guernewood Park last Aug. 27, according to witness accounts.

When a black BMW 740 driven by Ritter left the road west of Guerneville it slammed into Christopher Patti, 59, a prominent attorney and cyclist from Berkeley who had been riding westbound on Highway 116 and had apparently stopped to use his mobile phone, said witnesses.

The impact killed Patti, who was pronounced dead at the scene when Russian River Fire Protection medical emergency personnel arrived at the Sunday morning emergency call.

Ritter fled in a panic after the crash, ditched his borrowed car in Rio Nido and was the focus of a manhunt for the next two days until he was arrested in downtown Monte Rio, according to the evidence at the preliminary hearing before Superior Court Judge Dana Beernink Simonds.

Key testimony came from a lifelong acquaintance of Ritter’s who said he had loaned Ritter his BMW on the morning of the accident. Tony Boom, a Rio Nido resident at the time of the crash, broke into tears during questioning as he was asked to identify Ritter and described their relationship as “pretty much like brothers” since Ritter and Boom were both growing up in Cazadero and Monte Rio.

Boom said he got a call from Ritter earlier that morning asking for a ride from Monte Rio where Ritter had argued with his girlfriend. Boom picked Ritter up outside Bartlett’s Market and brought him back to Rio Nido where Ritter asked to borrow Boom’s BMW.

“I said no at first,” said Boom, but changed his mind, gave Ritter the keys and told him to “be careful,” said Boom, under questioning by Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Jessica Washington.

 A short time later Boom said he got a call from another friend who said there had been a fatal accident on Highway 116 and that Boom’s BMW license plate had been found at the accident scene. The friend told Boom “the cops are looking for me.”

Boom said he drove past the accident scene to Monte Rio in his Jeep looking for Ritter but couldn’t locate him. In Monte Rio, Boom encountered Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman who advised him to return to the accident scene and talk to investigators.

Later that afternoon the damaged BMW was found abandoned in a remote part of Rio Nido Road.

Ritter’s attorney, Charles Applegate, argued briefly in court that there was “insufficient evidence” offered in court to prove Ritter was driving the BMW and that Boom may have been the driver.

But Judge Simonds ordered Ritter bound over to face charges on vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run driving.

“There’s more than sufficient evidence in this case,” said Simonds. “There’s ample evidence that Mr. Ritter was the driver.”

Patti was a respected Berkeley attorney who was chief campus counsel for the University of California. He is survived by his wife and two sons.