In March 2020, a La Plata County, Colo., driver hit and killed pro cyclist Ben Sonntag. On Dec. 3, 2021, a district judge in Durango sentenced the driver to prison.
Judge William Herringer sentenced Cordell Schneider to 3 years in prison for vehicular homicide in the incident. According to arresting authorities, Schneider was driving 65 mph in a 35mph zone on a dirt road when he struck and killed Ben Sonntag, who was riding his bike.
Sonntag, 39, was a professional mountain bike rider and a pillar of the Durango cycling community. His family members arrived from Germany to attend the hearing in a packed La Plata County courthouse as Herringer issued his verdict.
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The judge indicated that he usually avoids sending people to prison, but the seriousness of Schneider’s crimes and his actions since the incident warranted hard time.
“I’m going to send you to prison, in part because I want to see if that shakes you in a way that you really begin to truly get what has happened here,” Herringer said.
Ben Sonntag’s Death: Crash Details and Sentencing
Colorado State Patrol officers responding to the scene of Sonntag’s death found Schneider’s Ford Ranger on its side in an adjacent creekbed. Officials initially filed no charges against Schneider, who was 19 at the time. However, an investigation resulted in his arrest under suspicion.
Schneider soon posted bail. Then, in July, he was involved in a single-vehicle motorcycle crash in west Durango. When police arrived, Schneider tried to flee the scene on foot. A witness reported seeing him try to haul the wrecked bike off the road and hide it in a nearby parking lot.
“The only right thing to do is to get [Schneider] into jail even if it doesn’t bring Ben back,” Klaus Sonntag, Ben’s father, said at the hearing. “He is a ticking time bomb for society, and it would just be a matter of time and place to see when and where the next such incident would occur.”
Herringer also sentenced Schneider to one year in jail for a bail violation and 90 days for reckless driving. Those sentences will be served concurrently with his 3-year prison sentence.
Driver Apologizes, Judge Responds as Cycling Community Reacts
Many of Sonntag’s family, and his bereaved girlfriend, issued emotional remarks at the trial. In response, Schneider stood to speak.
“I know that nothing I do or say now can change the past to bring Ben back,” he said. “You must know that I am sorry and that my family’s lives have been destroyed by this accident as well.”
When asked what he was apologizing for, he said, “I’m sorry that I sped down that road, that I could not control what I did that day.”
In his judgment, Herringer pointed out that Schneider’s apology rang hollow in light of his actions after the accident.
“Your words today would carry more if they didn’t accompany your actions afterward,” Herringer said. “I find it really difficult to believe that a person who’s looking inside themselves trying to think about what they could have done differently would then do what you did behind that motorcycle.”
By and large, it appears the sentence fell short of vindicating Sonntag’s friends in the cycling community.
“I personally don’t think it was long enough,” Adam Snyder, Sonntag’s close friend and former roommate, told The Durango Herald. “He was such a huge part of the community.”
Final Takeaways, and Remembering Ben Sonntag
Sonntag moved from Germany to Durango in 2007, where he graduated from Fort Lewis College (FLC) in 2010. After winning multiple collegiate championships with the FLC cycling team, he stayed in Durango and continued to ride professionally. At the time of his death, he was training to race in California for Team CLIF Bar the following week.
His successful career saw him become one of the fastest cross-country racers in the U.S. He became a familiar face in the National Mountain Bike Series, then the Pro XC series. He also won several rounds of the Epic Rides backcountry series.
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Friends knew Sonntag for his humility. His girlfriend, Sarah Alsgaard, said she had no idea that Sonntag was an international champion when they began dating.
“When I met him, he told me he was into mountain biking,” Alsgaard told VeloNews. “I had no idea the career he already had.”
Roy Sturm, father of notable Durango cyclist Sarah Sturm, attended Schneider’s trial and spoke pointedly about the grim lesson the incident represents.
He said the case and others like it, such as the crash that killed national cycling champion Gwen Ingles in Colorado earlier this year, shows the reality that cyclists may be hit and killed on any ride.
“You have to expect the stupidest thing from everyone on the road because of guys like this,” Sturm said.