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Farmers gather at the Fountain Inn to sip beer, play cards and talk about the price of corn, soybeans and wheat. When the Rams play, the regulars bring covered dishes and Rick McClellan, who bought the tavern a few weeks before the 1993 flood, supplies the fried wings. First-time visitors are invited to join in bar conversations and included in rounds of drinks bought by people who've lived in these parts all their lives. A sign at the rural roadhouse welcomes patrons to downtown Fountain, Ill., a blink-and-you'll-miss-it enclave about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis.
The Fountain Inn seems like a friendly place -- unless you arrive on a bicycle.
A sign at the door warns cyclists that no bike cleats are allowed in an effort to preserve the new floor -- cleats, which are made of metal or hard plastic and attached to the soles of bicycling shoes to improve pedaling efficiency, can gouge or scratch floors. The floor has aged, but the sign remains up. Ask regulars what they think of cyclists, and get ready for an earful: They hog the road. They use the bathroom and ask to fill up their water bottles, but they don't spend much money. They don't know the difference between a courtesy honk and an angry blast and are too quick to flip the bird at local motorists who paid for these roads with their taxes. They look ridiculous in their garish spandex clothes.
The Fountain Inn is ground zero for a longstanding feud between locals and cyclists, an overwhelming number of them from the St. Louis area, who come to Monroe County for its scenery and two-lane country roads that pass through forests and fields. Hard feelings that lingered for years blew up on Dec. 13, 1998, when Norma Browne-Gerner of St. Louis and a couple of friends walked into the Fountain Inn to buy some candy and soda before continuing their ride on the Bluff Road, which parallels the Mississippi River.
As the cyclists entered, James L. Dillenberger was sitting at the bar drinking whiskey and 7-Up. Those who know him say Dillenberger is a fanatic when it comes to neatness. The tools on his workbench are organized like a surgeon's scalpels. He is the only farmer in Monroe County known to have waxed his combine. Dillenberger is a large man, standing well over 6 feet, but locals say he isn't the fighting kind -- at least he wasn't until Browne-Gerner and her riding companions showed up.
Words were exchanged between Dillenberger and the cyclists. Folks at the Fountain say it's not unusual for remarks to be made when cyclists in funny-looking clothes walk through the door. It became a case of one thing leading to another, and as the cyclists left, Dillenberger says, Browne-Gerner spit on his 1997 GMC pickup truck. Browne-Gerner has denied spitting but has said that even if she did, it didn't justify what happened next.
As the cyclists headed down the Bluff Road, Dillenberger got into his pickup and gave chase. When he caught up, he jumped out and tried to pull Browne-Gerner off her bicycle. He didn't succeed, but he didn't give up. He got back into his pickup, put it in gear and intentionally struck her, causing a herniated disc that has required two surgeries. Browne-Gerner, a former St. Louis County police officer who works as a security consultant for AmerenUE, says she can no longer ride a bicycle for long distances.
While Browne-Gerner lay beside the road waiting for help, Dillenberger returned to the bar and ordered another drink. Rather than arrest him, sheriff's deputies wrote up a report and let prosecutors handle it. Initially charged with aggravated reckless driving, a felony, and misdemeanor assault, Dillenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving last November. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $250 as result of his plea bargain. At his sentencing, Dillenberger told the judge he'd consumed five drinks before encountering Browne-Gerner, but he later denied that his drinking played a role in the incident. He also told the judge he was taking medication to control manic depression, a condition for which he has been hospitalized three times. Some locals rallied behind him. A tavern owner in Maeystown put up a banner to show her support.
Aghast at what they considered a light sentence, some cyclists called for a protest ride through the county, but those plans were canceled at Browne-Gerner's behest. At the time, Browne-Gerner was asking a Monroe County circuit judge to order Dillenberger to pay $88,960 in restitution for medical expenses and lost wages. In January, the judge rejected her request because Illinois law, at the time of the incident, barred restitution in misdemeanor traffic cases. Now Dillenberger is facing a lawsuit filed by Browne-Gerner, who is seeking more than $75,000. Rather than face a Monroe County jury, Browne-Gerner's attorney, Gregory Shevlin, sued Dillenberger in federal court in East St. Louis. A trial is set for December.
Citing the pending legal action, Shevlin and David Nester, Dillenberger's lawyer, declined to make their clients available for interviews.
Determined to show that what happened to Browne-Gerner was an anomaly, cyclists in May held what they dubbed a "harmony ride" through Monroe County to demonstrate that cyclists and motorists can get along. The ride drew more than 100 cyclists, and no problems were reported. Organizers urged cyclists to write "Harmony Ride" on dollar bills and spend them in local businesses to show that cyclists can boost the economy. None of those bills found their way to the Fountain Inn, where McClellan taped up his own dollar bill behind the bar to show what he thinks.