Crotch Rocketeers

It's zero to oblivion in a heartbeat for too many of the risk takers on the new supercharged bikes

Rex was going about a buck-ten when he entered a turn too fast and low-ended his bike, a new Kawasaki ZX-12R that slid away from him like a runaway bobsled. In shock, he screamed incoherently at a woman who stopped her car to see if he was all right. This all happened in the middle of the street, only about a block from his house. Eventually, he picked up his bike and limped home. Voice quavering, lean frame shaking off the decaying adrenaline, Rex assessed his injuries. He was lucky: a fierce case of road rash but nothing broken or dislocated. He called his girlfriend.

"Babe!" he panted into his cell phone, pacing in his kitchen. "I just had to lay the bike down!"

Outside, the bike doesn't look too bad -- just a busted foot peg and a scrape -- actually more of a cat-scratch gouge -- that mars its bright-green fairing. The left side of Rex's body took the same punishment as it skidded down the street. The palm of his hand is the color of smeared lipstick as he gingerly daubs a friction burn near his shoulder with a wet paper towel, removing bits of sand and grime from the wound.

Colby Katz
Tony Borzumato, Richard Longmore, and another cyclist pimp their rides.
Tony Borzumato, Richard Longmore, and another cyclist pimp their rides.
The daring young men on their racing machines
The daring young men on their racing machines
The makeshift memorial on the street where Thaddeus Pope lost his life
Jeff Stratton
The makeshift memorial on the street where Thaddeus Pope lost his life

It's Rex's left leg, from roughly his ass on down, that absorbed most of the bike's inertia and then released it in a long, hard, soul kiss against the asphalt. It looks as if he's spent his 22 years taking coarse-grade sandpaper to himself in his spare time. A throbbingly moist cauldron of red anguish, the road-inflicted "rash" is nastiest near his knee, where a particularly deep scrape reveals a gristly white piece of tendon, like a pearl poking through a steak tartar platter. Though he spent 14 months in Baghdad, he says, this is the most seriously he's ever been hurt.

"Camille, honey, can you bring over some Neosporin?" he asks his long-suffering beloved.

Quickly converting his combat bonus into a crotch rocket, Rex joined many military men who come home pumped on high-performance machinery and days of danger. Some motorcycle stores estimate half of their sales are to soldiers, a recent U.S. Defense Department report says.

Fortuitously, Rex lives in an older neighborhood west of I-95 in central Fort Lauderdale where a little-used park-and-ride ramp offers him instant access to the freeway. He usually takes a shortcut through a small, pedestrian-only sidewalk to get there; doing so, he can make it from his front porch to I-95 in about 90 seconds. Maybe you've seen him -- a green-and-black bullet in your rearview mirror, plowing through traffic like a bandsaw through a balsa-wood airplane. Maybe you've called him... asshole?

"See that house?" Rex points three houses away at the corner. "From here to there, I'm already doing a ton," he says (biker slang for 100 mph). So how fast does he ride on the highway? "I couldn't tell you," he says, demonstrating his tucked-in stance on his bike. "I'll just go -- and I don't look back. So I don't even really know. I don't even look at my speedometer, dude. I just know that when I go fast, I go fast." In bullet-time mode, Rex's nose is nearly glued to the tachometer, and all he can see, he says, is scenery whizzing past like those Speed Racerbackgrounds set on high-speed fast-forward. He can't hear a thing, just the whoosh of the road.

"I can't explain it," he says, eyes twinkling with both pride and the sting of Bactine on his leg. "It's... exhilarating."


Law enforcement patrolling the roads where Rex and his ilk like to ride have had to adapt to the new breed of über-bikes, just as police in the 1940s and 1950s beefed up to chase hot rods. Most of the time, however, it's just too difficult and dangerous to mount pursuits at 100-plus mph. Police know every Fuddrucker's and Hooters where bikers congregate, and they attempt to rein in the more outlandish offenders before they hit the speedways. But they can't catch everybody.

Today's motorcycles are far from your father's Oldsmobile, or even Kawasaki dirt bike. Triple-digit speeds and ultralight weights distinguish today's sports bikes -- cat-like, aerodynamically superengineered machines -- from the old days. Most pack more of a wallop than the VW you drove in college, maybe twice as much, concentrated in a bullet-like bike. In the 1970s, a 750cc motorcycle was considered a beast. Some of the newest Japanese crotch rockets come with 1300cc engines and $15,000 price tags, combined with a lightweight chassis that gives riders a close approximation of a NASA launch sequence. Acceleration and torque, available with the slightest flick of a wrist, are as intoxicating and dangerous as a freebase binge. Riding one of these bikes is such a powerful thrill that the inherent hazard and responsibility of operating one soon disappears beneath the sheer sexualized pleasure. In less than an eighth of a mile -- in only second gear -- you're already doing between 80 and 100 mph.

With the engine roaring between your thighs, limitless power is on tap. Flying down the road at blinding speeds, bikers say, feels like taking your throbbing cock and pounding heart in your hands at the same time, a magic feeling of control, stamina, and gratification that must be the masculine counterpart of what makes little girls want to ride horses. But the flip-side to the fun is the awareness of just how that power and speed can instantly maim or kill.

You know how they say pride goeth before a fall? It could be the modern motorcyclists' mantra. The newest crop of racing-style bikes possesses outrageous power and intoxicating speed, generating a state of adrenaline-dumping euphoria. Add some cockiness and testosterone, then approach one of these machines without the proper level of respect and it'll whip around and kill you.

Go fast enough -- which is precisely what these bikes are designed to do -- then make the slightest mistake -- and you're a new organ donor. A bug splattered on an SUV's windshield.

Some of the new, high-end Japanese cycles can go 200 mph right out of the box. With a soft, fleshy human as part of the chassis, there's no such thing as a small accident. In this arena, even something as innocent as sneezing can spell disaster. A simple ah-chooat 180 mph means you'll travel more than 350 feet with your eyes shut. Plenty of time for another vehicle to pull out in front of you, which -- unless you're a very, very skilled rider -- means your runny nose makes you a hood ornament.


On a sultry, sauna-esque evening, all the action at the Hooters at Pines and University is in the parking lot. There are about 300 bikes rolling in, Pat Travers' "Snortin' Whiskey, Drinkin' Cocaine" blasting from the outdoor PA, and throngs of Harley dudes and dudettes, along with the younger gang with their Suzuki Hayabusas, Honda GXRs, Kawasaki ZX-12s. Sometimes, boasts Rex, he can make the 16 miles from his house to the Hooters in nine minutes.

If reaching 100 mph on your motorcycle puts you in an elite class, imagine what 140 or 180 will do, 24-year-old Joshua Schwalb says. "They call it a speed limit, and limits are made to be broken," he says. "It's considered an achievement. And when they get a cop behind 'em, it's an even bigger thrill, because they know they're gonna get away." Schwalb works for Peterson Motorcycles in Miami, and he's here displaying product, including a sleek, lemon-yellow 900cc Buell sports bike, a relatively obscure brand. Some of these speed freaks travel in packs, he notes, and will even record and privately market video footage of their road-warrior exploits. "The fear doesn't outweigh the thrill," he explains. "It's all about the adrenaline."

A leather-clad man with a graying ponytail and a saddle-seat Harvey lowrider sputters in and scowls at John and Jesse, typical young malcontents with new monster bikes. Jesse is still amped-up from the ride here, which, he says proudly, rocketed him up to 140 on the Florida Turnpike as he popped wheelies and wove between cars.

"Not just to show off," he insists, his face still tightened in a grimace from the intensity of the butt-clenching ride. "For the sport of it." At almost every red light, Jesse is tempted to let his front wheel lift off the pavement -- not hard to do when the bike can put out 1,000 pounds of thrust in a millisecond.

"Chicks dig it," John guffaws, reciting another age-old truism.

"They love that shit," Schwalb confirms. "You always hear, 'Where have all the good guys gone?' But the truth is that girls really want an asshole, someone who doesn't take any shit from anyone. And a lot of these guys are assholes."

For John and Jesse, courting girls and death takes place on the same turf. On the way up from Miami, Jesse remarks, he opened the throttle, hitting eight grand (8,000 rpm's) -- and then had two cars merge in front of him. Somehow, he screamed past unscathed. John's 1999 Yamaha R-6 is now capable of achieving 160 on the road, but when he adds a nitro-burner, he plans on passing the 200-mph mark, a summit most motorists can't even imagine scaling.

"Hopefully, I'll get to 212, 213, unless I kill myself," he half-laughs.

Jesse has only owned his 2005 Gixxer (a Suzuki GXR 600) since May, and the bike is his very first experience with motorcycling. Before taking the time for a local geography lesson, Bold Captain Jesse is already exploring the outer rim of the galaxy. For practice, he'll hit the Sawgrass Expressway or the area near the junction of 595 and US 27 at around 2 a.m., when there aren't many cars. A lonely strip of pavement in the Everglades known as "Hayabusa Mile" offers another sanctuary for time-trialists, but the law is starting to crack down there.

"Once you get over 200 mph," Jesse says, almost shaking with excitement, "it's crazy! Like you're invincible!"

"And then the next night, you're so excited you can't even sleep," John adds.

Other young riders, like Robert Cortebano, with leathers, helmet, and a new Suzuki, prefer to err on the side of caution. Cortebano still loves to hang out, walk up and down the rows of bikes, and show off. He's had his bike only a month and admits, "I'm still trying to get used to it."


Sgt. Domingo "DJ" Torres received his pilot's license before he even graduated from high school in 1979. He's been with the Florida Highway Patrol for 21 years, spending the last seven of those up in the air. In that time, he estimates, he has been asked almost a dozen times to assist in the pursuit and capture of speeding crotch rocketeers.

"We're just sick and tired of those guys," he says. "They're getting bold. They come by and slap the backs of patrol cars as they pass between us in traffic." The epidemic peaked on the turnpike last Labor Day, when Torres and his officers on the road were taunted all weekend by a dude whizzing through tollbooths at 130 mph. It took three days and a final, 40-minute, coordinated air-ground chase, but the biker was followed and nabbed.

"A lot of troopers came up and thanked me and said, 'I'm glad you got this guy, because we just couldn't catch him,'" Torres recalls.

Because the motorcycle had been used during the commission of a felony -- fleeing and eluding police -- the cops confiscated it and began forfeiture proceedings. Torres and his men had finally stopped one of these guys. "And then," he recalls, "I heard about Mr. David Carpenter."

Carpenter is not easy to catch. Slippery. In fact, when finally reached at a phone number he provided to police last year, the man who answered wouldn't even admit it was him. "I don't like the media. You people blow things out of proportion," he said before hanging up.

Regardless, it's clear Carpenter likes to drive over the speed limit. Traffic-court records from three counties outline the 24-year-old's enjoyment of fast cars and faster bikes. In 1998, while living in Boynton Beach, he was ticketed for failing to observe a stop sign and a year later was charged with speeding. In 2000, he was cited twice for driving in the HOV lane, and in April of 2001, he was convicted of racing on a public trafficway. In 2002, Davie police ticketed him in his Camaro for going faster than 75 mph in a 55 zone. The following March, he crashed his 2002 red-and-black Honda sports bike on Pines Boulevard and was written up for having no motorcycle endorsement -- meaning Carpenter wasn't even properly certified to operate the vehicle. (In Florida, cyclists need to take classes to earn their official "motorcycle endorsement," which is a license requirement.) In 2003, he was written up for careless driving in Miami. In 2004, he was nabbed again for speeding and having no muffler on his bike and again for failing to obey a traffic signal. Finally, in early 2005, he received tickets for operating a motorcycle between lanes and again for not having the proper license.

Torres first heard of Carpenter early this year. From the air, he was just a black-and-silver blur with a helmet and backpack. For months, troopers on the road had seen Carpenter's 2004 Honda CBR 1000 blaze past them at outrageous speeds. And he was predictable -- he'd make either a 6:40 a.m. or 8:15 a.m. appearance. He'd enter the turnpike from Kendall Dr., hit the gas, and lose the cops somewhere in Broward County after the Miramar toll.

"Miami-Dade police were fed up," Torres relates. "He was blowing by their units, leaving 'em on the side of the road. They'd send their helicopter up and follow him, but this guy was going faster than their helicopter." Since Miami-Dade's chopper can fly up to 125 mph, they knew the biker had to be cooking. "There's no way you can stop one of these guys," they told Torres, who offered to help Miami-Dade police with both the speed problem and jurisdiction issues. By April, the unknown velocity boy had led authorities on two chases.

On Wednesday, April 20, Torres and his troops had tired of being taunted. After assembling an eight-man squad and setting up positions up and down the 'pike, they went hungry for two days. Then on Friday at 6:40 a.m. Torres, up in a Florida Highway Patrol Cessna, spotted the bike. Troopers on motorcycles tried nabbing him near the Miramar toll, but, losing the cyclist in a pack of other civilian riders, Torres called off the chase.

"He'd go through the SunPass lane at 140 mph," Torres says. "We were all amazed at what this guy was doing." At one point, he blazed past an officer on the side of the road at more than 100, less than a foot away. To add perspective, the pilot explains that while tracking a moving target, the airplane basically flies in a large circle as the target runs. "With this guy, I never had to do that. I had him on my left side the whole time. And I was doing 140 mph."

Torres spent the weekend with his family -- but dreamed about nailing the guy.

On Monday morning, he assembled an arrest team. At 8:15, he spotted a silver-and-black flash on Kendall Drive just west of 127th Avenue. "I noticed him because he was doing 100 mph in between cars on Kendall Drive," he notes dryly. He mobilized his troopers, in place at every exit along the turnpike. It was important, he told them, that they get behind the guy and turn on the blue lights, so they'd have a charge of aggravated fleeing and eluding, to make all this trouble worthwhile.

Caught up in traffic, the bike slowed down to pay a toll at NW 41st Street. But as the speedster prepared to exit there, he saw an FHP trooper on a bike at the bottom of the ramp. "So he turns around and goes back up the wrong way, back the way he came," Torres says. More trouble -- he encountered troopers Enrique Gascon and Danny Lloyd, lights flashing, heading straight at him.

"One officer told me that he [Carpenter] came within inches of hitting him," FHP spokesman Lt. Julio Pajon says. "He felt the wind as he went past. It's a miracle he didn't hit or kill anyone."

"They actually sideswiped each other," Torres adds. The biker momentarily lost control of the bike and hit a curb in the SunPass lane, which caused the Honda's front tire to instantly deflate. He flew up in the air, regained control, and then took off on the turnpike going the wrong way, going in between cars, heading straight at oncoming traffic -- the rim of his flattened tire leading the charge.

As this rush-hour matinee played out, Torres followed the bike as it weaved through west Miami-Dade, all the way to Krome Avenue, where it again gunned to more than 100 mph. "He was passing cars and semis between the grass and the space the vehicle leaves," marvels Torres, who trailed the bike all the way into a gated apartment community off 167th Avenue and 105th Street. He watched it circle an apartment building several times until he eventually lost sight of it under the canopy of a huge tree.

"I knew he had to be in one of those apartments," Torres says. When the arrest team made it there, its first job was to run the plates from every car in the parking lot to see if any motorcycle owners turned up.

In the meantime, a young man came out of one of the apartments walking a dog. He approached one of the FHP officers and said, "You know, I just applied to be a trooper. And, you know, my wife is a 911 operator."

"We said, 'OK, great,'" Torres reports.

At that point, Trooper Michael Valdez wrote in his report that the man's face bore "the fresh imprint of sunglasses" and noticed a tire track leading to the sliding glass door of his apartment. After some hemming and hawing, Valdez says the man agreed to let police take a peek in the apartment. By then, computer records showed a motorcycle was owned by the occupant of the apartment, David Carpenter. From the living room, dark tire tracks on the white shag carpet led officers to a bedroom where the Honda sat tucked between Carpenter's bed and closet. The front tire was shredded, the rim dented, and the license plate bent so that the tag couldn't be read from ground or air. There was the backpack. And the helmet. That was that.

On the kitchen table, officers found an FHP application and a letter from the state informing Carpenter he had met the qualifications needed to begin the process of becoming a state trooper.

Carpenter had been racing to get to work, though he had fled back to the safety of his home. At the Plantation Harley-Davidson dealership where he was employed as a service writer, manager Barry Kuhnly says Carpenter quit the week before his arrest. "I guess he didn't like the drive from where he lived all the way up here," Kuhnly smirks. "It was taking him 15 minutes instead of 12."

On July 27, Carpenter is due in court, where he faces three counts of fleeing and eluding police and two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer -- all felonies. He has also been hit with citations for reckless driving and concealing his license plate, and the state is in the process of forfeiting the motorcycle.

"He put everybody's life in danger out there," Torres says. "Like it's nothing; like it's a game."

Cops like Torres know different. "We're literally doing next-of-kin notifications every week," he says. "Literally."


In the Hooters parking lot, several have heard Carpenter's name on the news. "He's not exactly an icon," Schwalb explains, "but that's how you get known." A few BMWs and Ducatis -- the priciest, most flamboyant of the crotch rockets -- roar in. In a small consolation to fellow motorists, few if any of the sports-bike enthusiasts are drinking alcohol. With reflexes already at a premium, most of the chances they're willing to take are against the road, not themselves. At the end of the night, as packs of bikes speed away in different directions, cop cars in pursuit, it's high speeds, not DUI, they worry about.

The thrill still comes down to the intensity of the adrenaline rush and industrial-strength macho bravado. "One guy told me he likes to get in the inside lane, up against the cement wall, so he can hear their engine reverberating off the wall at 140 mph," says Lt. David Kronsperger of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. "I said, 'Well, bully for you!'"

The owner of a downtown motorcycle repair shop openly mocks the groups of bikers who primp and preen at hangouts like Hooters and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Forty-five-year-old Robert "Dr. Bob" D'Angelo says he would follow the pack, waiting for them to pull into a nearby gas station. "Then I'd leave with 'em," he says. "I would fall right into their pack. And I'd work my way up to the front guy, to their baddest rider."

Then he'd play a rev-rev game, pulling up, dropping back, just to aggravate the lead rider.

"And they'd be like, 'Who is this asshole?'" Dr. Bob laughs. "But they're assholes too -- we're all assholes. That's why we're out there. But my thing is showing them that they're nothing. Their lead guy couldn't outrun me, because I'm the better rider. I've been doing this since I was 10 years old."

His shop walls are covered with photos of him leaning into a curve, knees just millimeters above the pavement, on the way to winning another race. Trophies, plaques, and awards line one grease-stained shelf. His clients and friends know him as a barely reformed free radical, unleashing his demons on the track these days -- with cred earned on the street.

After a lifetime of racing, running, and jumping every sort of two-wheeled vehicle known to man, Dr. Bob feels his experience holds sway. "You can't run down I-95 at 150 mph, passing cars doing 50, and think you're cool!" he shouts over the loud television set in his greasy work bay. "But that's what these guys do."

But Dr. Bob doesn't get his rocks off courting speeding tickets. "Running from the cops is not something that excites me. Beating the guy that runs from the cops is more fun to me."

Dr. Bob, whose Honda 919 tops out around 175, says skill is in short supply with the young crop of hotshots.

"There's no doubt that they are dangerous," he says, referring to both the bikes and their reckless riders. "They don't have to even do anything to these bikes. The new bikes now, you can take 'em right out of the box, take 'em down to the track, and win on 'em. The engines are too fast as it is."

Hearing Carpenter's tale, he offers another spin on the hidden or obscured plate. "I know a guy who has a button on the instrument panel. You push it and it turns the tag upside down. It says 'FUCK OFF' on the other side."

Despite past opportunities too good to pass up (like a Daytona-Fort Lauderdale journey in just under two hours or racing a Lamborghini down U.S. 1 on a Saturday afternoon at 130 mph), Dr. Bob stays clear of trouble. "My whole thing is, I don't want a ticket. I'm just thinking about the money and losing my license. And once I take off, I've really got to get away, because it's not just a ticket anymore. I'm not like, 'Ha ha, I'm getting away from the cops -- I'm so fast, you can't catch me.' It's just that I don't want to get in trouble, you know?"

Dr. Bob's strangely bent forearm and his pack of old x-rays showing tibias and fibias in various states of painful-looking disarray stand as testament to the other perils of riding fast. In 15 years, he can name a dozen customers who've become roadkill.


"There are only two types of riders," Schwalb contends: "One who has already gone down and one who will."

At the high speeds sports bikes can achieve so effortlessly, crashes are instantaneous arbiters of justice, ruthlessly applying Newtonian laws with vengeance.

Between January 2004 and June 2005, 345 people were killed in traffic accidents in Broward County, including 51 motorcyclists, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.

Lt. Pat Santangelo leads Troop K of the West Palm Beach division of the Florida Highway Patrol. While working an accident site several years ago near Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, he came upon a gruesome discovery. "A motorcycle had failed to negotiate the curve at the southbound I-95 entrance to 836. We found the guy's head down on 14th Street, in a helmet. The rest of the body was later found against a guardrail."

It took a couple of days to find the bike. "It was hundreds of yards from the initial impact, down under a ramp two blocks away. Nobody thought it would be that far away. That's an example of what could happen," he says grimly. "There's no reset button."

Lt. Roger Reyes of Broward's FHP says his officers hate to risk their safety or the safety of the public to go after the high-speed cyclists. "The guardrails take care of them, sooner or later," he explains. "I've seen decapitations, severed body parts. The guardrail acts as a guillotine."

Older cyclists from the Harley-Davidson group can't extend much respect to the kids on the "rice cookers." As a self-described veteran rider, 65-year-old Diver has been around bikes since the 1940s. Part of the problem, he maintains, is maturity (or lack thereof) coupled with the weight and horsepower of the motorcycle. "It takes a step-by-step process to get to the point where you can control a machine at those speeds. They didn't start out with a 125cc bike, then go up to a 350 and 500. They're starting out with top-end racing bikes."

While stuck in traffic, Diver and his buddies have been set upon by groups of young troublemakers like crows besieged by pesky sparrows. "I know they do it on purpose, 'cause they're screaming as they go by so they can startle us. 'Let's scare this old guy on his hog. 'We're crawling along, and these kids are doing wheelies in between lanes of traffic! All that has to happen is someone sees 'em coming in their rearview mirror, says, 'Watch this,' and then open their door on 'em."

Diver says that many of the cops he's friends with have told him they don't bother chasing crotch rocketeers. "They figure they can just go down the road and pick up the pieces."


Some of life's toughest lessons consist of simple yes/no variables. Others are like complicated physics equations. In the case of 18-year-old Thaddeus J. Pope, both were imparted simultaneously. On Friday, May 27, he and a group of his friends took turns riding a crotch rocket that police believe had been stolen the week before. "He was prewarned not to do it," sighs Pete Peterson, Pope's stepdad, voice weary with pain and sadness but still -- understandably -- wishing he could slap his son upside his head.

"I forbid him to ride it. I told him if I caught him on it, he's going to lose his car. That's the only leverage I had on his ass."

Pope's cherished 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis never went anywhere -- it's still parked in front of the tree-covered home where his family lives. About a mile away, in an otherwise quiet southwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, Pope and his pals were attempting to discover exactly what the 2004 Honda CBR-600 was capable of. They say knowledge is power, and Pope got more than he bargained for.

The young men test-drove the bike through Chula Vista's side streets. It had a stolen tag, of course, so they didn't want to risk taking it on the highway. At 8:15 that night, Pope took the bike down SW 16th Street, heading west. When a Chevy S-10 suddenly appeared a few blocks down the street, the laws of inertia and gravity -- perhaps an echo of the straightforward warning from his stepfather -- all came into play at once.

"He knew how to get it going really fast," Peterson says softly. "But he had no idea how to stop it at those speeds. Judging by where the skid marks started, if he'd known how to operate that front brake and knew how to downshift properly, he could have stopped." Pope hadn't learned those catastrophe-averting techniques. Instead, in a panic, he clamped down on the bike's rear brake. The back wheel locked up, throwing him off the bike. Still shrieking with unspent rpm's, the bike slid underneath the Chevy; Pope ended up practically embedded in the back bumper. Witnesses say he somehow remained conscious and even asked for a drink of water as help was summoned.

Judging from the skid marks, friends and family say Pope's body must have been traveling at least 120 mph at the time of impact. (Immediately after the accident, the bike was stolen again, complicating the police investigation.)

Exhausted from a swordfishing trip the night before, Peterson and his wife went to bed around 8 p.m. that Friday. After an officer's urgent knocks on the door awakened them, they rushed to the hospital. "An absolute horror scene," Peterson shudders. Pope's left leg had been virtually torn off, the muscles practically flayed from the bone. His liver and spleen had been ripped in half and one kidney obliterated by the S-10's chrome trailer hitch, which ended up protruding through his stomach. When he died (of "blunt force trauma to the abdomen," says John Dela Gloria, an investigator with the Medical Examiner's office) at 9:30 p.m., he was less than 16 hours from attending his own high school graduation.

His classmates were stunned by the news, still so fresh it hadn't completely traveled through the crowd. During the ceremony, Stranahan's principal presented Pope's parents with his diploma, which they subsequently buried in his casket. The six-foot-six-inch senior had been defensive end for Stranahan's football team. "He was a tough kid," coach Keith Skinner says. "He had a future. He could have gone to a junior college and probably played for somebody, because he was still going to put on that weight."

One wet weekday afternoon several days after the accident, the intersection of SW 16th Street and SW 31st Avenue stands as a spray-painted memorial to the memory of a happy-go-lucky man known simply as Pope to his friends and Harry to his immediate family. Poker-faced 21-year-old Mark Pope, a nervous guy with his kid brother's strapping build, stands in the street in the rain, talking on his cell phone, smoking a cigarette. "I'm a mess, man," he says. "I don't think it hit me until today. One bad decision. That's all it was."

Flowers, candles, photos, and hand-written remembrances surround the scene. "THADDEUS J POPE 12-11-1986 / 5-27-2005 ONLY TIME WILL TELL" -- no explanation given -- reads one sign. Neighborhood kids on summer break cruise by on bicycles and in cars to pay respects, commiserate with Mark, or just stare at the black skid mark ending so abruptly in the street. Patricia, a friend from down the street, sums it up: "He probably just didn't know how to ride it."

Peterson, groping to explain, says: "What my son did was stupid. He was one of the ones who wasn't out there drinking or doing drugs, so I guess he had to get his thrills in a different way. But we want to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else's child."

Yet he understands the high kids get from riding a bike like that. "The acceleration is a junkie's rush, no doubt about it," he says. "I told him it was not transportation, not a cruiser... I said, 'It's meant for only one thing, and you're not skilled enough to handle it.' I told him."

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