Crime

Truck driver’s negligence began well before fiery Hwy. 101 crash killed 4, prosecutor says

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office began opening arguments against Las Vegas truck driver Phillip Trujillo on Friday. Trujillo, seen here at a hearing in January 2016, faces four felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter. His trial is expected to last two weeks.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office began opening arguments against Las Vegas truck driver Phillip Trujillo on Friday. Trujillo, seen here at a hearing in January 2016, faces four felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter. His trial is expected to last two weeks. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A prosecutor says a semi-truck driver blamed for the death of four people on Christmas Eve 2014 was grossly negligent long before the Highway 101 crash that turned their van into “a flaming ball of fire.”

San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Charles Blair made his opening remarks Friday in the trial of Phillip Ken Trujillo, the Las Vegas truck driver charged with four felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter.

Trujillo’s gross negligence, Blair argued Friday, began before his tractor-trailer was struck by an oncoming van so hard that the van’s roof was sheared off as the driver made his fateful left turn from northbound Highway 101 across the southbound lane onto Wellsona Road.

Trujillo’s negligence began, Blair said, when Trujillo first realized that his truck was experiencing technical problems that resulted in a loss of speed and maneuverability and when Trujillo declined to call for a tow truck despite pulling over four times between the Cuesta Grade and Wellsona Road.

Blair called Trujillo’s actions that night “a string and a pattern of conduct that shows willful and wanton disregard for other drivers,” specifically Crystal Reuck, 22; Taylor Swarthout, 22; Karen Szaz, 45; and David Castillo, 42.

Though Blair concluded his opening remarks Friday, Trujillo’s attorney Raymond Allen opted to reserve his opening statement until the state rests its case.

Christmas Eve tragedy

The collision occurred at 6:14 p.m. on Dec. 24, 2014, about three hours after Trujillo, a Las Vegas truck driver, departed San Luis Obispo after dropping off a full trailer and picking up an empty one. According to an on-board computer placed on Trujillo’s truck by the company from which he leased it, Trujillo made his way north, at first driving at a reasonable speed of 65 mph, Blair said.

But after climbing the Cuesta Grade, Trujillo’s truck drastically decreased speed. Computer logs showed that Trujillo stopped for about 30 minutes in Atascadero, but then resumed driving, turning east on Highway 41, where he pulled over on three occasions, Blair said, at locations “perfectly appropriate to have your vehicle towed from.”

Trujillo then turned west on Highway 46 before turning back on to northbound 101.

By the time Trujillo reached the intersection just north of Paso Robles, where he sought to turn in to the San Paso Truck Stop, his vehicle was traveling “significantly slower than the speed limit” and his truck spent about 14 seconds in the intersection, Blair said.

Surveillance camera footage from the truck stop showed a steady flow of traffic that evening. While two oncoming vehicles were able to swerve to avoid colliding with the trailer, the surveillance video showed Reuck’s van striking it, producing a bright flash of light that Blair said witness Arturo Sandoval will testify was Reuck’s van exploding in a ball of fire.

Blair said jurors also will hear from Jonathan Franklin, with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, who was first on the scene of the accident.

“What he saw, he can never forget,” Blair said.

Reuck, Swarthout and Szaz were pronounced dead at the scene, while Castillo was taken to the hospital and later declared dead.

California Highway Patrol Officer Frank Packard, also on the witness list, previously testified that the accident scene was nothing but “body parts and debris.”

Another CHP officer, William Stratman, was the first to speak with Trujillo after the collision. Blair said Stratman will testify Trujillo initially said there was nothing wrong with his truck. Trujillo later told CHP Officer Tim Maxwell, who specializes in commercial vehicles, that his truck was “running hot” and experiencing problems with its air compressor.

Maxwell previously has testified that he witnessed Trujillo receiving instructions via cellphone on how to erase the truck’s on-board computer, which he then carried out. A second on-board computer provided police with Trujillo’s route and speeds prior to the crash.

Trujillo’s trial will resume Monday and is expected to take up to two weeks.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

The intersection of Wellsona Road and Highway 101 has been a concern of San Luis Obispo County drivers for years. Tracy Hunter-Gajdos was driving across the road in her SUV in September when she pulled in front of a pickup towing a trailer. The cr

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