STOW: The two men were out doing something they loved that sunny September morning.
Nick O’Donnell was riding his bike. Greg Kostelnik was driving home after walking his dog.
Kostelnik’s windshield suddenly fogged up at the same time the sun hit it, obscuring his view. He struck O’Donnell, fatally injuring the bicyclist.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” Kostelnik said Thursday afternoon during his sentencing in Stow Municipal Court. “I didn’t intend to go out that morning and hurt somebody.”
Kostelnik, 58, of Hudson, pleaded guilty in January to vehicular homicide, a second-degree misdemeanor, in Stow Municipal Court. He faced up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.
But both the prosecutor and O’Donnell’s family urged Judge Kim Hoover not to impose jail time, calling what happened a tragic accident. They pointed to how Kostelnik wasn’t speeding or impaired.
Hoover went with their recommendation, fining Kostelnik $250 and ordering him to donate the same amount to the Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in O’Donnell’s name because of how much he loved the park. Hoover also placed Kostelnik on probation for three months.
Local bicycle enthusiasts say the crash should serve as a warning to drivers who share the road with them and are now required under state law to give bicyclists a three-foot clearance when passing.
“If you’re driving a car or any vehicle and you cannot see what’s ahead of you — which will often happen at sunup and sundown — you need to pull to the side of the road until you’re able to see,” said Marilyn Shea-Stonum of the Akron Bicycle Club. “Blindly going forward can result in unspeakable tragedies.”
The bicycle club has made it a mission to educate both motorists and bicyclists on road safety in the wake of a collision in September 2015 in which a pickup truck driver struck a group of bicyclists on Snowville Road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, killing two riders and injuring three others. The driver blamed glare from the setting sun. The bicyclists were club members out for their weekly ride.
In that case, the truck driver was found not guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide.
The latest collision happened about 7:45 a.m. Sept. 16. O’Donnell, 65, of Stow, was riding his bicycle east on state Route 303 in Boston Heights when he was struck from behind by Kostelnik. O’Donnell was taken to Summa Akron City Hospital, where he died.
Tom DiCaudo, the Boston Heights law director, said Kostelnik wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol or driving recklessly. He said Kostelnik’s only mistake was negligence. He said both he and the Boston Heights officers didn’t think jail time was warranted.
DiCaudo said O’Donnell’s family didn’t want to come to court.
Henry Hilow, Kostelnik’s attorney, said his client didn’t leave the scene and flagged down passing motorists to help O’Donnell. He said Kostelnik has been distraught.
“Many times you use the word ‘accident’ and ‘tragedy,’ ” Hilow said. “This truly was a tragedy.”
Kostelnik, whose wife was in court to support him, said if O’Donnell’s family had attended the sentencing, he would have apologized to them.
“I have to live with the outcome for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s hard. I’m scared to go out of the house because of this. I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”
Hoover said he received a letter from Joyce O’Donnell, Nick’s widow, who said she didn’t blame Kostelnik and knew this was an accident. He said she suggested Kostelnik be required to make a donation to the park. The judge plans to match Kostelnik’s donation to the park.
Hoover hopes other drivers learn what not to do from Kostelnik’s experience.
“When your windshield is obscured, you brake and slow down,” Hoover said. “I’m not suggesting you’re different from the rest of us who would motor on. There is some fault involved. That’s why you stand here today.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.