If you’ve lived or worked in Emeryville long enough, you’ve likely noticed the white “ghost bike” locked to a street pole along Powell Street at Vallejo just across the North Oakland border.
The bike represented the site where Matthew Sperry was killed by a driver twenty years ago on June 5, 2003.
And while this ghost bike is no longer present (it was either stolen or removed somewhere around 2020), the memory of Matthew Sperry remains as strong as ever to those that knew and loved him.
2002: Ghost Bikes begin as Guerrilla Art Project
Ghost Bikes in the U.S. are thought to have been started by SF artist Jo Slota. Slota’s intention was to draw attention to the many bikes in the city that were stripped and abandoned. In 2002, he began painting the carcasses of these bikes white and posting photos on his now defunct website ghostbikes.net.
His project may have inspired others around the country to embrace them to promote awareness of cyclist deaths and dangerous roads and promote empathy for cyclists.
Loved ones and activists began painting bikes white and adorning them with colorful flowers acknowledging cycling deaths (many times anonymously).
The first recognized Ghost Bike as a memorial is thought to be in St. Louis in 2003.
June 5, 2003
On the morning of June 5, 2003, Sperry was bike-commuting to his job in Emeryville an audio engineer at Leapfrog from his North Oakland home at 49th & Shafter. Sperry helped produce musical accompaniments for Leapfrog’s electronic children’s toys.
While traversing Powell near Vallejo Street along the Oakland-Emeryville border, Sperry was struck by a Ford F-150 truck who was making a left on Powell from Vallejo.
Emergency services were administered to Perry but it was too late and he died on the scene.
The driver, 46-year-old Patricia E. Humphrey from Berkeley, was driving the borrowed vehicle with an expired license. She claimed to be driving the speed limit and that she made a full stop at Powell according to her statement to police.
There were no witnesses to counter her statement. Humphrey was not tested for drugs or alcohol according to reports.
Reaction to his death & honoring his life
The 34-year-old Sperry left behind his wife, Stacia Biltekoff, and their then 2-year old. Biltekoff was alerted to her husband death from a business card from the county coroner that was taped to her door asking her to “please call ASAP.”
In the wake of his death, friends set up a online memorial that they regularly updated with new information (last updated on the 10 year anniversary of his death).
“The world has lost a shooting star,” the first entry read. ”Matthew Sperry was hit by a car while on his bicycle this morning, and left this earth shortly after.”
Biltekoff, a practicing member of Berkeley’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, began Shivah which is a 7-day bereavement period which coincidentally and tragically concluded on Fathers Day.
Days later at 21 Grand, an event space in Oakland near Broadway, a wake was held for Sperry. It was described as a raucous event by The East Bay Express attended by throngs of local musicians. Sperry was well-known in the local music community for his experimental style and this event channeled his spirit.
Bike East Bay (then known as “East Bay Bike Coalition”) created the ghost bike memorial locked to a 30 MPH sign post with a sign reading “Cyclist Killed Here. Slow Down.”
Members of the nearby Oakland Ashram, one of whom Sperry was connected to through chiropractic treatment, helped maintain it and occasionally refreshed the flowers.
For nearly a decade following his death, friends held an annual musical event dubbed “Sperryfest” to pay tribute to him.
Miraculously, only the front tire of Sperry’s bike was damaged. Friend and Cellist Theresa Wong converted his cycle into a playable electro-acoustic instrument.
Sperry’s Short but Impactful Life
Sperry was a native of Redondo Beach in Southern California and was a 1991 graduate of Florida State University. He moved to Seattle shortly after graduating where he met Stacia. They eventually began dating before they settled in the Bay Area. They married in 1999.
Sperry developed into a talented musician with a lengthy local resume. He appeared on two Tom Waits albums as well as recordings for Anthony Braxton and The Talking Heads’ David Byrne.
He was also bass player and a performer in the acclaimed SF production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
A more comprehensive list of Matthew’s musical accomplishments can be read on his obituary.
Killer Ultimately Fined $211
Despite driving without a valid license, the deputy District Attorney at the time was unable to charge Humphrey with manslaughter. The harshest penalty under the circumstances was a misdemeanor that carried a maximum penalty of six-month jail time and a $1,000 fine. These penalties were ultimately not pursued.
The last opportunity for any form of accountability was in traffic court. Biltekoff was determined to confront her husband’s killer and find closure and was in attendance along with other supporters.
Biltekoff was allowed to make a “victim impact statement” during the proceedings.
“You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom when I spoke,” Biltekoff recounted. She proceeded to detail the impact the loss of Matthew has had on her and her young family.
“She looked at me and said ‘I’m hurting too’ with a tear in her eye. It was a very intense moment.”
In the end, Humphrey pleaded no contest and the presiding Judge John True reduced the penalty to an infraction and ruled for a $211 fine. “She didn’t even lose her license,” Biltekoff detailed.
Theses court proceedings were detailed in this 2004 EBX article titled “True Justice?”
Little done since to fortify Bike Safety Along Powell/Stanford Corridor
Today, despite the corridor being identified as a priority for cyclist safety, the East-West connection along Powell-Stanford remains as treacherous as ever for cyclists.
Other than additional traffic lights at Beaudry and Doyle, the section of Powell has never received any significant cycling upgrades.
“It’s absurd they haven’t improved that street by now,” Biltekoff noted when we spoke to her. Biltekoff discovered there was a second fatality near the intersection prior to Matthew’s.
“We applied for an initial scoping/planning grant last summer through ACTC’s 2024 Comprehensive Investment Plan for this study, but were unsuccessful in getting the ~$250k we requested,” noted City of Emeryville Senior Civil Engineer Ryan O’Connell.
The city hasn’t given up though but any significant upgrades could be years away. “The high-level idea is to create a class I bike facility that connects along the Stanford Corridor (rather than Powell) that connects our Greenway to the proposed Shattuck-Adeline-Stanford Greenway Vision Plan. Also included in Emeryville’s scope would be a traffic study in the Doyle/55th/Stanford/Vallejo area and improved crossings at Beaudry/Powell and Vallejo/Powell.”
During the first few years following Sperry’s death, Stacia turned to her faith. “What devastated me that first Rosh Hashanah was the whole notion of being written into the Book of Life,” she noted in the Jewish news focused publication Jweekly.com.
Biltekoff’s loss set her off on a career transition to become a Grief Counselor which she recently achieved after completing a three year program.
Biltekoff was amicable to replacing the Powell Ghost Bike as a physical reminder of Matthew’s life and the ongoing struggle for adequate bike infrastructure.
“One of the important parts of living with grief is finding the meaning,” Biltekoff responded when asked if she feels closure today. ”And this feels meaningful.”