The truck driver involved in a fiery crash which took the life of an Illinois Tollway worker on Interstate 88 in January entered a plea of not guilty to a raft of charges Monday, including accusations that he had falsified logbooks to cover up the fact that he had driven far beyond his legal limit.
Trucker Renato Velasquez did not speak during the brief hearing in a Dupage County courtroom packed with Illinois State Police troopers who had gathered in a show of support for colleague Douglas Balder.
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 Velasquez plowed into their parked vehicles, at least one of which burst into flames. Petrella died from his injuries and Balder was critically burned.
"He has been in a medically induced sleep for the past several weeks," said State Police Captain Patrick Kimes, who was among the troopers who accompanied Balder's wife to court. "Within the last week he has been slowly brought out of that, and he is now somewhat responsive. But he is still being medicated due to the extent of his injuries."
Velasquez 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.
"My client pled not guilty today," said Velasquez' attorney Steven Goldman. "I have to review the discovery. There's approximately 600 pages of reports. There's more to come. So I need some time to review everything."
The trucker pled guilty to federal cocaine charges 12 years ago and did nearly two years in prison. There is no suggestion that drugs played a role in the Illinois tragedy.
But Federal authorities moved swiftly to revoke his interstate driving privileges, declaring Velasquez an "imminent hazard to public safety."
"Safety for all travelers is our highest priority," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said of the Illinois crash. "Willfully reckless commercial drivers that jeopardize the safety of everyone on our highways and roads will not be tolerated."