MERCED -- Law enforcement officials say he was a transient. Court records show he had a criminal history.But to the people who crossed his twisted path as he drove the wrong way down Highway 99 on Thursday morning, Richard Abston was a wild man who laughed as he aimed his truck at cars in his way.
Abston, 53, died Thursday morning after a chaotic struggle with law enforcement on the side of the highway. Abston's cause of death won't be released until a toxicology report is completed, said Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Tom MacKenzie. The toxicology results, expected in three or four weeks, will tell officials whether Abston had drugs or alcohol in his system.
The events that led to Abston's death unfolded shortly after 7:30 a.m. He first collided with five vehicles as he drove southbound in the northbound lanes of 99, then stopped his silver truck on the median near Childs Avenue. A CHP officer ordered Abston out of his truck, but he refused. The two struggled.
Abston fled on foot and climbed atop a stopped big rig's cab. When Abston wouldn't get off the truck, Merced police officers dosed him with pepper spray. He then ran away. Officers shocked Abston with a Taser to prevent him from running into traffic, officials said. During his struggles, Abston kicked one officer and banged his own head against the pavement, they added.
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Abston was then handcuffed. He lost consciousness and was taken to Mercy Medical Center Merced. He was pronounced dead about an hour later, at 8:47 a.m.
One of the drivers in Abston's path was Atwater firefighter Brian McDonald. He was on his way to work Thursday morning. Shortly after McDonald pulled onto the highway at Yosemite Park Way, traffic braked to a sudden stop, he said. McDonald assumed there was an accident or a dog in the road.
Instead, out of the pack of cars in front of him, a silver pick-up careened toward him, swerving back and forth. "I had never seen anything like it in my life," said McDonald. With Abston bearing down on him, McDonald made a split-second decision and yanked his steering wheel to the left, plowing into the median and out of Abston's way. McDonald and his vehicle were unharmed.
As Abston drove by, McDonald caught a glimpse of his face. "He was laughing as he passed me," said McDonald. "He seemed to be having fun ... He was yanking the wheel to the right and to the left and he seemed to be enjoying himself." He added, "The guy was trying to kill people. He was out of his mind, he was definitely out of his mind. There was nothing sane about his actions ... He had a death wish."
Also on the road that morning was Phyllis Setzer, of Valliant, Okla., making her first visit to California. Through light fog, Setzer and her husband spotted Abston's truck "coming down the road bouncing off cars." Setzer said Abston appeared to be intentionally swerving back and forth and "making a hole to drive through.
"If there was something in his way, he hit it," said Setzer. When Abston slowed to stop about six feet away, Setzer saw Abston sitting behind the wheel of his truck, waving his arms back and forth and hitting the steering wheel. "He looked like a wild man," said Setzer. "Whether it was fear, exasperation, frustration -- I don't have any idea, but he was wild-looking."
Suddenly Abston accelerated, cut his wheels to the left and slammed into the Setzers' 2007 Yukon Denali, crumpling the fender and smashing a headlight. The Setzers were shaken up, but not harmed. "It wasn't really a near-death experience, it was a come-to-Jesus experience," said Setzer.
The reasons behind Abston's highway rampage remained a mystery Friday. Officials released few details about his background. His last known address was a post office box in Modesto that's no longer valid, according to the Sheriff's Department.
Court records in Fresno and Stanislaus Counties show that Abston had a history of run-ins with the law stretching back to at least 1990. He was arrested or cited in connection with petty theft, vehicle theft, battery and resisting a law enforcement officer. In April 2007, Abston was cited in Stanislaus County for driving without registration and insurance.
Now, to the drivers and passengers he briefly terrorized, he will be remembered as a wild man who laughed.