- Keith Krombel, victim of a hit-and-run cycling crash in Frederick. (Dave Jamieson)
“It kind of shakes your faith in people and how they behave,” Keith Krombel says.
The 56-year-old Northern Virginia cyclist is talking about how he was run down by a car and left unconscious beside a country road in Frederick, Md., on the night of May 30, 2009. The collision demolished Krombel’s road bike and tossed him onto a stranger’s yard, leaving him with a fractured hip, lasting damage to the nerves in his shoulder, and an admitted degree of paranoia when it comes to dealing with people he doesn’t know. He spent 10 days in Washington County Hospital and another four weeks in a wheelchair.
“They left me to die on the side of the road,” Krombel goes on. “That’s kind of hard to deal with.”
Krombel’s case was closed on May 31, 2010, but not because police had solved it or even deemed it unsolvable. Procedurally speaking, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office can end the investigation of a hit and run like Krombel's if they haven’t gotten anywhere within a year, according to spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Bailey. "If we were able to leave those cases open indefinitely, we'd never close cases," says Bailey.
Krombel himself has had a harder time filing it away, largely because his body hasn’t let him. Not only has he lost much of the function of his right arm, he now suffers random shooting pains from his shoulder down through the tips of his fingers, a sensation he compares to being electrocuted. He recently underwent surgery to alleviate the carpal tunnel syndrome in his hand that resulted from the crash.
Another cruel reminder of the incident is the modified recumbent bike he’s now relegated to riding on trails. Krombel used to ride over 200 miles per week on average and completed four Race Across America rides and dozens of other tours. Now he doesn’t have enough strength in his right arm to handle a traditional bike with confidence.
And since he was knocked out on impact, his mind constantly races with questions about the crash, some of them philosophical.
“You don’t know who did it, what happened, or why it happened. You don’t have any of those answers. As you’re out there [each day], you’re wondering, Is this the person? What kind of person would leave somebody like that?... You’re kind of left to your own mental devices, and they’ll run wild, unless you get them under control.”
“I think the hardest part for him was just not knowing what happened,” says his wife, Mary Krombel. “We had a couple of choices. We could try to just let it go, or we could see how difficult it would be to do something about it.”
As reported in the Frederick News-Post, the Krombels recently headed back to town to put up posters offering a $10,000 reward out of their own pocket for any information that leads to an arrest and conviction. “We gave ourselves a budget and figured it would have to be $10,000 to get anyone’s attention,” Mary says.
They built a website, devoted a phone line to tips, and consulted with a lawyer and a private investigator. Believing that Keith’s injuries perhaps hadn’t been taken seriously — the immediate news report mistakenly said he’d been released from the hospital the following day — the Krombels were careful to note in their fliers that the damage had been “severe.”
Bailey, the sheriff's office spokeswoman, says the deputy assigned to investigate Keith's case has "truly done everything he possibly can."
"He spoke to the neighbors in the area, to the riders who were riding both in front and back of the victim, and nobody saw anything," says Bailey. "In fact, the victim didn’t see anything, either. There was no information to follow up on. [The deputy] exhausted all leads. He was not able to come up with a basic description of the vehicle or the driver."
Had Keith died in the collision, the case probably would have remained open or been sent along to the state attorney's office, says Bailey, noting that homicide has an unlimited statute. But since the incident has been handled as a non-felony, "Even if we determined who the suspect was today, there's nothing in place that would allow us to charge on," she says. At this point, she adds, Krombel could probably only pursue a civil case against the driver.
The Krombels describe their own reopening of the case as the latest step in a long recovery. “Psychologically, it’s encouraging to get out of the victim mentality,” says Keith. There were other notable moments of rehabilitation, like when Keith managed to twitch his finger for the first time about six weeks after the crash, relieving him of the dreaded fear that he’d severed the nerve in his shoulder. Or the time he and Mary first revisited the scene on Yellow Springs Road about six months into his recovery, trying to piece together what they could. Keith surveyed the area for about 10 minutes and decided he’d had enough. “I was hoping that if I went back and rode the route [in a car] that it might trigger something,” he says.
The large majority of Frederick residents, Mary says, have been “supportive and kind.” Even so, she was fascinated to see how differently some car-minded people view cyclists.
“For a good percentage of them, the first question is, ‘What was Keith doing in the road?’” she says. “Some people want to think nothing will go wrong unless you do something foolish. They try to find a thousand reasons why it’s [Keith’s] fault.”
In keeping with the law, Keith says he had been in the road and as close to the shoulder as could be reasonably expected. Though he was alone at the time, he had been passed by a group of friends moments before the accident, which occurred just five miles short of the finish to his 250-mile trek through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He was found by some neighbors who’d heard the crash, people he credits with saving his life.
The Krombels decline to say whether their reward money has drawn out any information yet. Hit-and-run accidents are notoriously difficult to solve without witnesses, and a non-fatal incident like Keith’s rarely draws the attention and resources that can break a case. Still, there’s always the chance that an admission slipped out in a bar somewhere, or that the guilty party, now having learned what Keith went through, will decide to come forward.
For the most part, Mary says, the investigative team consists of her husband and herself. They don’t have especially deep pockets, and they certainly don’t have experience solving crimes. But even if they fail to tease out any leads, the mere act of putting up a reward has been therapeutic.
“We don’t consider ourselves junior detectives,” says Mary. “It’s only a mom-and-pop operation. It’s just for us, really.”
Anyone with information pertaining to the May 30, 2009 hit and run at Yellow Springs Road south of Bethel Road, in Frederick, Md., should call 877-411-1812 or go to www.BikeHitandRun.com.