Illinois State Police Trooper Doug Balder narrowly escaped death after a fiery crash on Interstate 88 near Aurora last year.
“My voice has not returned to full yet, I’m moving, running,” he said. “I had 13 broken ribs, a broken left scapula, a brain bleed.”
Balder and tollway worker Vincent Petrella were stopped on the shoulder of I-88 near Eola Road helping the driver of a disabled truck when trucker Renato Velasquez plowed into their parked vehicles, at least one of which burst into flames. Petrella died from his injuries and Balder was critically burned.
Velasquez, who pleaded not guilty in April last year, is named in a 10 count indictment, eight of which are felonies. Investigators say he had been on the road for some 36 hours on a trip which had taken him from Chicago, to Nebraska, through Iowa and back to the Chicago area. During that time, they said he had fewer than four hours sleep, a violation of federal regulations.
While Velasquez faces several felonies, including operating a vehicle while fatigued and falsifying reports, victims on Tuesday argued those charges aren’t enough.
“The felony trucking violations they have against them have nothing to do with killing people,” said Balder’s wife Kimberli. “If they had crashed into a guardrail instead of people the penalty would be the same.”
Balder and his wife stood with ISP Trooper James Sauter’s widow to fight for stiffer penalties. Sauter was killed by a semi on Interstate 294 in March 2013. Cook County prosecutors say truck driver Andrew Bokelman was also driving fatigued. Bokelman was not charged with reckless homicide.
“[Bokelman] is by no means being held responsible for my husband never coming home again, never having the opportunity to become a father, never having the opportunity to receive the sergeant rank,” said Sauter’s widow Liz Sauter. “I could go on forever.”
DuPage and Cook County prosecutors said in a statement they can only charge what can be proven in court.
“As with every case that comes through my office, charging decisions are made after a thorough review of the facts, circumstances and applicable law in each individual case,” the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office said in a statement. “While this tragic case involves the death of a state employee and severe injury to an Illinois State Trooper, the charging decision was handled no differently. The Illinois Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct mandate that as State’s Attorney, I have the duty to only bring charges that can be substantiated in a court of law. My charging decisions cannot be based on emotion, politics or any other forces. My decisions must be based on the law and what can be proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is what I have done in this case.”
Velasquez’s attorney also said there’s no evidence to pursue a reckless homicide charge.
“He’s devastated of what happened,” said attorney Steven Goldman. “It was an accident and this will come out in court.”
Velasquez’s trial was scheduled to start next month, but the National Transportation Safety Board recently released a 5,000-page report on the deadly crash and DND International, the Naperville-based trucking company Velasquez worked for.
NBC5 Investigates found the report showed Velasquez had been cited numerous times before the crash for fatigued driving, speeding and following too closely. He also told investigators he had not received any training from DND, according to the report.
Immediately following the accident last year, NBC5 Investigates revealed that DND International had an “unsafe driving” rating of 92.4 percent, meaning that nearly 93 percent of all trucking companies had better records than DND. Last spring federal regulators ordered DND’s trucks off the road.
Further, the NTSB report indicates cell phone records show Velasquez may have been on the phone at the time and records show he tested negative for alcohol after the crash.
Goldman told the judge Tuesday he needed time to review the thousands of pages of documents and photos. They are due back in court next week to determine whether the trial date will be moved.