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VIEWPOINT: Fatal Bettendorf bike accident a mystery

VIEWPOINT: Fatal Bettendorf bike accident a mystery

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The details don't add up.

How does an experienced cyclist, wearing a helmet and pedaling uphill, sustain such massive injuries from a simple fall?

When Jim Stoffer died from injuries he sustained in a July 10 biking accident on Forest Grove Drive in Bettendorf, police suspected a medical event had caused him to lose control.

But an autopsy ruled out a medical problem, and the death was declared an accident.

Six months later, Jaye Stoffer does not accept that her husband simply fell off his bike, fracturing his skull, pelvis and clavicle, among other injuries.

She thinks something else may have caused it.

What is known

Jim Stoffer was no average 66-year-old.

The summer before his accident, he rode most of the 450-plus-mile bike ride across Iowa, RAGBRAI, two days before running the 7-mile Quad-City Times Bix 7. It was his 40th Bix.

Shortly before his death, Stoffer did a 110-mile bike ride from the Quad-Cities to Dubuque. The only reason he was out riding on that 84-degree evening, rather than riding his training bike in the basement, his wife said, was that his indoor trainer was shipped back to the manufacturer for a tune up. He'd put 9,600 miles on the indoor-training bike. (It was delivered to the house the morning after the accident.)

Jaye Stoffer wishes she had tried talking her husband into a walk that evening, rather than a bike ride. But she says he probably would have insisted on the ride, anyway.

"He left at 6:30 p.m., and he said he'd be gone an hour to an hour-and-a-half," she said. "It happened right about 7:30. He was about a mile from home."

Liz and Mikhail Giza also were riding along Forest Grove that evening. They were on the bike path at Utica Ridge when Stoffer passed them on the bike lane on Forest Grove.

"We were training for RAGBRAI that night," Liz Giza said. "When Jim rode past us, my husband said, 'He's ready for RAGBRAI.' He looked great."

Within minutes, as the Gizas crested a hill, they saw Jim Stoffer lying on the pavement — about two-thirds of the way up the opposing hill.

The couple sped up, rushing to Stoffer's side. Liz, a nurse, did what she could to help. Mikhail Giza called 911.

"I knew that he had fallen; it was pretty obvious," Liz Giza said. "My gut said that something had caused him to fall. He was so strong when he passed us, and I wondered whether he had a stroke."

But that wasn't it.

The autopsy revealed that nothing medical contributed to Stoffer's death, which was the result of massive head trauma.

"Now, it's like, My God: What did happen?" she said. "It was catastrophic injuries. It did not appear he anticipated a fall. His arm was not extended out to protect himself.

"It looked like he didn't know it was coming."

Terrible timing

One of Jim and Jaye Stoffers' two sons was on his way to their house from his nearby job around 7:30 p.m. on July 10.

He called his mom to ask whether his dad was home. He'd come upon a bad-looking accident on Forest Grove, and he asked his mom to check her cell phone's tracker app to see if his dad's bike was on the move.

It wasn't.

"Zach came and picked me up, and we quickly came upon a lot of backed-up traffic," Stoffer said. "I said, 'Let me out.' I started running.

"My heart sank. He wasn't moving. It was worse than anything I could've imagined in my worst fears."

She could plainly see that the love of her life for more than 33 years was in serious trouble.

At Genesis Medical Center, the man she called "Stoffer" was being prepared for air transport to Iowa City. She watched his battered body being prepped by the flight crew.

"Not an hour before that, I was thinking about what we were having for dinner," she said. "When we got to to the neuro ICU in Iowa City, I knew where he was, because there were so many people working on him.

"They talked about surgery, but the doctor told us the injuries to his head were not survivable. It was horrible. It still is."

The investigation

Jim Stoffer survived just a few hours after his accident.

He was declared dead shortly after midnight on July 11. 

His wife was devastated, lost. She still is.

Then came an unpleasant distraction: The autopsy report.

"When the report said there was nothing medically wrong with him, I went to see the police," Stoffer said. "I read the police reports, and it didn't add up.

"How do you get those kind of injuries from falling off your bike while riding uphill? The injuries were so violent.

"I think they were too quick to put it to rest. His injuries were all on his right, but I think something happened on the left that was the catalyst.

"Did a passing car clip him?"

A police officer who responded to the scene of the accident on the night it happened wrote in his report that Mikhail Giza told him he could not recall any vehicles passing in the couple of minutes between first seeing Stoffer and finding him in the roadway.

But Liz Giza said the statement wasn't entirely correct.

"There could have been 10 cars that went by us," she said. "We were riding and talking, and we weren't paying attention to traffic, because we were on the path, not the street."

Officer Neil Chapman wrote in his report: "I did not locate glass or side mirror debris indicating a hit-and-run accident. I checked the roadway and found the surface to be clear from any large debris. There was some small gravel/rock on the roadway but nothing that appeared to be the cause of the accident.

"The surface condition was also clear from any potholes, buckles or cracks that could have caused such an accident."

The next day

Jim Stoffer's death compelled another look at the scene on Forest Grove.

This time, Sgt. Andrew Champion was in charge of the report.

"I did not observe any foreign objects or defects in the roadway that I thought would have contributed to Stoffer losing control," his report states. "I located several pieces of black plastic in the boulevard between the roadway and separated trail."

But the bits of plastic appeared to have been in the grass prior to the accident, Champion concluded, based on their condition.

Another officer was sent to the Stoffers' house, where he observed and photographed Jim's bike and helmet. He concluded there was "no significant damage indicating that a foreign object came into contact with the bike."

He listed the damage he observed, including, "Front left handlebar bent to the right with scratches near the top of the hand brake."

Remember: Stoffer went down on his right. What if the damage to the left handlebar occurred when it was clipped by a mirror on a passing vehicle?

The cycling glove on his left hand also was damaged; the ring finger on the glove torn nearly off.

But Bettendorf Police Chief Keith Kimball said the left-side damage wasn't enough.

"A bike can flip over, end-over-end," he said. "The injuries are consistent with a fall from a bicycle. He was haulin' pretty good.

"There's not even an accident report on this, due to no motor vehicle being involved. We don't believe it was a hit-and-run."

Why not ask the public?

Jaye Stoffer is not necessarily convinced her husband's accident was the result of a hit-and-run.

It is possible, she said, that he "drifted" slightly out of the bike lane and was "clipped" without the driver realizing it. Liz Giza wondered the same thing; that maybe someone's mirror hit the bike without the driver's knowledge.

Something must have propelled him against the curb, given those injuries?

"I get that a car didn't run him over, but did someone clip him?" Stoffer asked. "Why, in this case, didn't the police do the 'All Call' and ask the public if anybody saw anything or maybe heard someone talking about possibly hitting a cyclist?"

The answer, Chief Kimball said, is in the evidence. There just wasn't enough of it to keep an investigation open.

"Without having an eyewitness and video, there are always going to be questions," he said. "We wish we could bring more closure."

A call for possible tips would have sent the wrong message, he said.

"That request gives the impression something happened when we didn't think that at all," Kimball said. "I know they are looking for closure and more answers, and we wish we could give them the reason why he came off his bike, but we will probably never be able to answer those specifics for them.

"We go where the facts lead us. We didn't have all the answers, but I think we have enough."

It's not enough, of course, for Jaye Stoffer.

While she blames no one, the unanswered questions pile a haunting doubt on top of a pain that already feels like too much to bear.

And that is why, sometimes, telling your story is your only hope for relief.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or


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