Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Trail advocate pleads guilty to assaulting pedestrian

Capital Crescent member was riding his bike when tempers apparently flared

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A board member of the Capital Crescent Trail Coalition pleaded guilty to second-degree assault earlier this month in connection with an incident that took place on the popular hiker-biker trail in April.

Isaac Hantman of Bethesda was fined $1,000, with $750 suspended, and sentenced to probation before judgment for one year on Aug. 1 after pleading guilty to assaulting a woman on the trail on April 24.

According to the statement of charges filed in Montgomery County District Court, Karen Hughes, 48, of Kensington, was walking her dog on a portion of the trail behind her office at 4300 Montgomery Ave. in Bethesda when she refused to move out of Hantman's way. He was riding a bicycle toward her and called for her to move to the right.

Hantman, 67, then got off his bike and argued with Hughes, who said she thought there was enough room for the bicycle to pass, according to the charging documents. The arguing allegedly included religious slurs.

"I did the one thing I thought would get a rise out of him," Hughes told The Gazette, although she said she now regrets the name-calling. "He was a bully, obviously, and he just wouldn't let it go."

Hughes tried to walk away, and Hantman allegedly jumped on her back and placed one arm around her head and another around her throat and applied pressure for approximately two to three minutes, according to the charging documents.

"He was scaring me," she said.

Hughes stated that she had red welts on her neck and shoulders when Hantman released his grip.

Hantman would not comment. His attorney, Frank Pichini, said Hantman's version of the incident differed from the woman's but declined further comment.

According to the charging documents, Hughes said Hantman at one point identified himself as a member of the Park Patrol, a group of volunteers who help police monitor the trail. She said Hantman was wearing a Park Patrol T-shirt at the time of the incident.

Lt. Karen Petrarca of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police said Hantman is not currently a Park Patrol volunteer but did serve as one in the past.

Wayne Phyillaier, another board member of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, said the group would take the incident under advisement. He did not comment on whether Hantman would remain on the board. The coalition's next regular board meeting is Sept. 8.

"It's probably not an emergency decision for the board," he said.

Lt. Mike Meixsell, a spokesperson for Park Police, said any verbal confrontation between a Park Patrol volunteer and another person using the trail would be considered inappropriate and unprofessional on the part of the volunteer.

"There's no way that would be tolerated whatsoever," he said.

According to Meixsell, the Park Patrol serves as the "eyes and ears" for Park Police on the trail. It also educates the public about trail use.

Meixsell said although the trail has become a highly politicized topic in recent months, Park Police have not recorded an increase in the number of conflicts between bikers and pedestrians on the trail. About 600 people use the trail per hour during weekend mornings in the summer.

"It's probably the most active trail we have in the parks system as far as multi-use," he said.

Hughes said she walks her dog on the trail every day and has seen or experienced numerous problems on the trail, including pedestrians being hit by bicyclists.

"I understand that a lot of people have been having problems on the trail," she said.

In a Gazette story from March 19 titled "Cyclists, pedestrians paths cross on safety of trail," Hantman was quoted as saying that many of the accidents on the trail are due to overcrowding and congestion due to the trail's unexpected popularity.

In the story, Hantman advocated widening the trail at least at its busiest spots, such as Bethesda Avenue and Little Falls Parkway.

In several letters to The Gazette, he also argued against the construction of the light rail alternative for the proposed Purple Line transportation route between Bethesda and New Carrollton along the Capital Crescent Trail.