Over the course of the many years that they knew each other — including before, during and after their marriage — Cynthia Lawrence said that Jim Koenen remained the most loving person she had ever met.
Koenen cared for all living things, Lawrence said — almost to a fault.
“He was very kind and very gentle,” said Lawrence, who had two children with Koenen and remained close to him despite their divorce 30 years ago. “He used to drive me crazy because when he would drive, he would try to avoid hitting the moths on the highway because he didn’t want to kill them. He wouldn’t kill an insect in the house; he would pick them up and take them out.
“I’ve never known a man who was just so full of love for everything,” she added. “Every homeless person, every creature, every plant — literally everything.”
Lawrence’s voice cracked several times Friday as she reflected on Koenen, who was killed early Wednesday morning after being struck by a vehicle while walking on a stretch of Highway 246 near the Sweeney Road intersection just east of Lompoc.
Koenen’s death sent shock and grief throughout his circle of friends and family members, and it also renewed a long-running community discussion about the safety of some parts of Highway 246 and what can and should be done to improve the area.
“That strip between the roundabout and the (Robinson) Bridge is just a dangerous stretch of road,” said Lompoc City Councilman Jim Mosby, who has been advocating for changes on the highway for several years. “People are driving fast and it’s narrow. … I think the whole corridor needs to be brought up to the times.”
Another life lost
Koenen, who was 68 years old at the time of his death, is the second pedestrian to die in that area of Highway 246 in the last 12 months.
David Decker, a 64-year-old Lompoc resident, also died near the Sweeney Road intersection when he was hit by a truck on April 6, 2016. Decker was reportedly leaving the nearby Bridgehouse homeless shelter when he was struck. Koenen, according to Lawrence, had been living at the campground at nearby River Park.
Koenen was fatally injured around 5 a.m. Wednesday, March 29, when he walked into the path of an oncoming Kia Spectra being driven by 49-year-old Gilberto Martinez, according to a report from the California Highway Patrol. The report states that Martinez was driving westbound at about 55 mph in the correct lane of traffic when he said he suddenly saw Koenen walk northbound across the Sweeney Road intersection.
Martinez reportedly tried to avoid Koenen by braking and swerving his vehicle, according to CHP, but was unsuccessful. Koenen died at the scene.
The incident still is under investigation by the CHP and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office to determine if any intoxicants played a role.
Lawrence said she’s thankful that Koenen didn’t suffer long after the collision, and she said that she and her sons are hoping to get in contact with Martinez so they may offer their sympathies to him.
“We cannot imagine the grief and worry he must be feeling,” she said of Martinez. “Our family would like him to know that we have absolutely no ill will towards him. We would like to reach out to him and let him be reassured that our prayers are with him.
“We’ll be there if he feels like he needs forgiveness — and there’s no reason he should; it was an accident and we know that,” she later added. “We just don’t want him to feel any horrible responsibility.”
Lawrence said Friday that she was still coming to terms with her ex-husband’s death.
Koenen was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, she said, but had lived most of his adult life in Northern California near Yosemite National Park. For many years, Koenen worked at Yosemite for the National Park Service.
“He was very spiritual and pretty much a free spirit,” Lawrence said of Koenen.
Lawrence and Koenen had two sons together — both are now adults — and Koenen also helped raise Lawrence’s daughter from a different relationship. The couple has eight grandchildren. Despite their divorce, Lawrence said the two always remained on good terms.
“There was never really any (animosity); we got over whatever differences there were and we were very dear to each other,” she said.
Koenen, after retiring from the National Park Service, eventually moved to the Lompoc area, where he lived with a longtime girlfriend. Lawrence and the couple’s adult children still live near Yosemite in Oakhurst.
Lawrence said that Koenen is in the process of being cremated. She said she plans to send some of Koenen’s ashes to his mother in Minnesota, which is where his siblings also live, but she said she plans to keep some of them to spread at Yosemite.
After years of working to spur action, Mosby said that changes may soon be in store for the stretch of Highway 246 that connects with Lompoc and, specifically, the highway’s Robinson Bridge.
Mosby is Lompoc’s representative with the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG, which distributes funding for road projects.
The Robinson Bridge has been the focus of many complaints over the years due to its lack of a pedestrian or bike path, coupled with the fact that it serves as the actual bridge between the city and its biggest homeless shelter. Because of that, many people, including families and young children, traverse the bridge daily.
A bridge replacement was included in the list of projects to be partially funded by Measure A, which was approved by voters in 2008. Measure A is slated to pay for about $8 million of that $25 million replacement cost, with the rest slated to come from the state’s gas tax revenue. The biggest problem with that plan, at least in the eyes of some Lompoc residents, is that the replacement work isn’t likely to begin until 2034 at the soonest.
In an attempt to speed up that timeline, Mosby has raised several issues with the bridge and its surrounding corridor to SBCAG and representatives from Caltrans, the state’s transportation department. He has pointed to dangerous water runoff that is being drained onto the highway from neighboring farms, as well as the unsafe conditions the highway poses for the many people who walk, bicycle and/or ride horseback in the area, which leads to La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, among other destinations.
That work seemingly paid off in November 2016 when SBCAG received a letter from Caltrans District 5 Deputy Director Sara Von Schwind that stated that the Robinson Bridge “will now be identified as needing replacement, based on various cumulative conditions … .”
Mosby had hoped that the project would qualify for funding under the State Highway Operation and Protection Program, or SHOPP, which could potentially move the replacement work up to 2020, instead of the mid-2030s. The letter from Caltrans suggested that could be a possibility.
“We expect that in spring 2017, once we have received projected funding levels and target performance measures from Sacramento, we will be able to indicate which projects will be moving forward as 2020 SHOPP candidates,” read a portion of the letter from Caltrans.
The letter stated that the final project list is expected by the end of June 2017, and that it is unknown yet if the Robinson Bridge will be included in this or a future SHOPP cycle.
Mosby said he’s hopeful that the SHOPP funding, if approved, can be combined with expedited Measure A funds to construct a substantially different bridge, such as one with four lanes.
Mosby pointed to the two other stretches of Highway 246 between Lompoc and Buellton that are four lanes — including a widening project that is currently under construction — and said there was no reason the entire stretch shouldn’t offer two lanes in each direction.
“We’re trying to get it balanced,” Mosby said. “You gotta plan for the future, and if you’re gonna do it, you might as well do it right. We’re trying to find the funding mechanisms — like everything else, everyone is short money. But, being the representative from Lompoc, I’ve got to be willing to get in the ditches and fight for it.”
Mosby said he has no interest in politicizing tragedies like the two pedestrian deaths over the past two years, or the 2016 death of a firefighter in the Highway 246 roundabout less than three miles away, but he acknowledged that the incidents highlight the need for something to be done.
“I think it verifies what we’ve already been saying,” he said, noting that this isn’t solely a pedestrian or shelter-related problem.
“I’m not gonna tell Caltrans what to do; they are the experts,” he later added. “But they know that something needs to be done. They know they need to cure a problem there.”