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Semitruck driver tried to erase evidence after fatal wreck near Paso Robles, CHP officer testifies

Philip Trujillo, of Las Vegas, the driver of a truck that stalled at Wellsona Road, causing a crash that killed four people on Christmas Eve 2014, is seen during his preliminary hearing in the manslaughter and evidence tampering case against him.
Philip Trujillo, of Las Vegas, the driver of a truck that stalled at Wellsona Road, causing a crash that killed four people on Christmas Eve 2014, is seen during his preliminary hearing in the manslaughter and evidence tampering case against him. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

After a fatal wreck near Paso Robles on Christmas Eve 2014, a semitruck driver from Las Vegas tried to erase recorded evidence that would have showed his vehicle was malfunctioning, a CHP officer testified Thursday during a preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Phillip Ken Trujillo, 56, was on his cellphone and repeating instructions from someone on the other line indicating he was trying to remove information from the vehicle’s onboard computer as CHP officers investigated the incident, Officer Timothy Maxwell testified.

A minivan carrying four people collided with Trujillo’s semitruck at 6:14 p.m. at the intersection of Highway 101 and Wellsona Road north of Paso Robles. All four were killed: Crystal Lee Reuck, 22; Taylor M. Swarthout, 22; Karen Michelle Szaz, 45; and David Castillo, 42.

While Reuck allegedly was under the influence of methamphetamine and marijuana, the CHP concluded that Trujillo caused the accident by not yielding the right-of-way to approaching vehicles and by driving an unsafe vehicle.

Trujillo, who was traveling north, attempted to make a left turn onto Wellsona Road, according to the CHP. But because of the truck’s mechanical problems, he made the turn at an estimated 2 mph. The minivan was traveling southbound and crashed into the semi’s trailer, shearing off the van’s roof.

Trujillo has pleaded not guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter.

As he was inspecting the truck driver’s vehicle, Maxwell said he overhead Trujillo talking on his cellphone, repeating instructions aloud about moving the turn signal up and down, while his hand was in the area of the ignition.

Was he trying to erase the computer codes?

Deputy District Attorney Charlie Blair, questioning a CHP officer

Maxwell said he didn’t know who Trujillo was talking to on the phone, only hearing a one-way conversation.

“Was he trying to erase the computer codes?” Deputy District Attorney Charlie Blair asked Maxwell.

“Yes,” Maxwell replied.

The prosecution alleged that Trujillo knew the truck — which he’d picked up in San Luis Obispo from the HomeGoods home-decor chain store to drive to Las Vegas — was malfunctioning, but chose to drive it anyway.

CHP Officer Frank Packard, who has since retired, responded and described a scene of “body parts and debris.”

The semitruck sheared off the roof of the van, Packard said.

CHP Officer William Charles Stratman, who also responded to the scene, testified that Trujillo told him he left San Luis Obispo three hours before arriving at the area where the crash occurred. Trujillo was turning in the direction of the San Paso Truck Stop.

The reasonable thing to do is to turn left at a truck stop to check that out, isn’t it?

Raymond Allen, Trujillo’s defense attorney

Stratman said Trujillo told him the vehicle had “no mechanical problems whatsoever.”

However, Maxwell said a mechanical malfunction alert light was on and his temperature gauge was showing the truck was overheated.

Defense attorney Raymond Allen suggested through his questioning that Trujillo may have been turning into the truck stop to get his vehicle checked — eliciting the answer from Maxwell that the alert could have meant a “myriad of things.”

“The reasonable thing to do is to turn left at a truck stop to check that out, isn’t it?” Allen said.

Maxwell responded that was a reasonable choice.

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