JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — A judge ruled Thursday that there is enough evidence to bring to a possible trial the felony case against the semi driver accused of causing a fiery crash that killed four people and injured many others on Interstate 70 this year was in court again Thursday morning.
The driver, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, 23, sat in the courtroom in Jefferson County for much of the day Thursday for his preliminary hearing. In addition to finding there was enough evidence to take the case to trial, the judge in the case granted a motion from Aguilera-Mederos’ attorney that will allow Aguilera-Mederos to live out-of-state and to travel while proceedings continue.
Before court began, Aguilera-Mederos's attorney, Rob Corry, asked the judge to grant a subpoena for a second semi-truck driver who was parked on the shoulder of the highway, claiming it was illegal to park there and it played a factor in Aguilera-Mederos swerving back into traffic. The judge rejected this and denied the motion to reconsider. Corry has remained his attorney despite being arrested twice in a three-week period this summer.
On April 25, Aguilera-Mederos, who is a U.S. resident from Cuba, was driving a semi carrying lumber eastbound on I-70 in Lakewood. He was working for the Houston-based trucking company Castellano 03 Trucking LLC at the time. Denver7 found that over the past couple years, the company has had federal violations for issues related to brakes and English proficiency.
According to an arrest affidavit , Aguilera-Mederos, who had a commercial driver’s license, had been driving at least 75 mph in an area where the speed limit was 45.
Witnesses told police the truck had been speeding around the Genesee exit and even forced a pickup truck off the road at one point, according to the affidavit. Despite the high speed, the driver did not use any emergency runaway truck ramps, witnesses said.
John Doll, investigator with the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office and a former detective with the Arvada Police Department, interviewed several witnesses who said they'd seen the semi prior to the crash. On Thursday morning, he said he talked with one couple who was almost run off the road by a speeding semi in Rand, an unincorporated part of Jackson County, on April 25. After seeing the crash on the news later that day, the couple called police because they thought it may have been the same semi.
Doll told the courtroom he also spoke with a witness who spotted the semi as she was driving into Denver from Evergreen. She told him she had tried to call 911 because the driver seemed out of control, but was put on hold and by the time she got through, the crash had already occurred.
Aguilera-Mederos would later tell police he lost control of the semi after noticing his brakes were failing, but claimed he was only traveling 45 mph at that time. Police reports show he was actually travelling closer to 80 mph.
As he neared the Colorado Mills area, out of a fear of rolling over, he tried to maneuver the truck to the right shoulder and avoid the stopped traffic, but saw the shoulder was blocked by another semi, according to the affidavit.
Aguilera-Mederos then swerved back into lanes of slow traffic from a previous crash, closed his eyes and crashed into 28 other vehicles, including four semis.
The crash, which occurred at 4:50 p.m., caused a massive blaze and explosions.
Doll told the courtroom Thursday that he spoke with a witness whose car was and engulfed in flames. The man was able to escape but told the investigator he thought he was going to die. He said he remembered seeing the semi driver in a torn T-shirt and recalled him saying something like, "I'm going to jail," Doll said. The driver asked nearby people if he could use their phones in English. The witness was treated for neck injuries related to whiplash.
Rescuers were unable to get near the vehicles until about 10 p.m. that day. Four people had been trapped in their vehicles and died.
Gregory Strandberg, a police agent in Lakewood, also addressed the court Thursday. As he stood at the stand, he said he was off-duty and saw the smoke plume from the crash. He arrived at the scene around 6 p.m. He said there was no way to describe what he saw.
Aguilera-Mederos was injured in the crash, but not seriously, and was taken to the hospital. While there, he talked with police from Lakewood, Strandberg said. He said Aguilera-Mederos told the police that he had five hours left on his eight-hour day. As he was coming down the hill into Lakewood, he tried to pump his breaks but found they were not working, he said. He also noticed traffic was becoming congested.
Strandberg said Thursday that Aguilera-Mederos made his way to the right shoulder before noticing the other semi parked there with its hazards on. He said his truck was moving at 85 mph at this point. He realized the shoulder was ending and he was far from stopping. His semi struck a car to the left, he heard an explosion, the semi moved a little to the right and he doesn't remember much after that, Aguilera-Mederos told police, Strandberg said.
In early May, Aguilera-Mederos was charged with 40 counts, including the following charges:
· Six counts of first-degree assault
· 24 counts of attempted first-degree assault
· Four counts of vehicular homicide by reckless driving
· Two counts of vehicular assault by reckless driving
· One count of reckless driving
· Two counts of violent crime causing death or serious bodily injury
· One count of violent crime using a weapon
Thirty-six of those charges are felonies.
The judge in the case on Thursday said there was enough evidence that Aguilera-Mederos had chosen to drive into stopped traffic to continue the case toward trial.
“There was a knowing act on the part of the defendant that exhibited an extreme indifference to the value of human life,” Judge Bradley Burback said.
But Judge Burback did grant a motion from Aguilera-Mederos’ attorney that will allow him to live out of state and to travel despite some objections from family members of several of the victims. He was granted bond in May and was not required to wear a GPS monitor.
His defense said Thursday that Aguilera-Mederos had been receiving threats while in Colorado and that he wanted to be back home in Texas with his family.
First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir said in late May that while the semi Aguilera-Mederos was driving was destroyed in the crash and authorities couldn’t inspect the brakes , they had other ways to test if brake failure caused the crash. Weir did not elaborate.
Strandberg said Aguilera-Mederos told him he was traveling to Texas from Wyoming through Colorado at the time.
On May 20, Aguilera-Mederos spoke publicly for the first time since the crash in a Facebook live video . Alongside his wife, he offered his condolences for those affected and thanked the people who were supporting him.
“First, I want to give my condolences to the families of the people who passed away in the accident…” he said in the video. “I am hurt. It’s very hard. Very, very hard.”
Aguilera-Mederos’ arraignment in the case is scheduled for Sept. 3.
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