Taylor Swarthout was set to spend Christmas 2014 with his young son. Instead, his parents, Terri and John Swarthout, were forced to hide news of their son’s death and their own grief so they could provide their grandson with a good holiday.
In the years to come, their son’s death took a toll on their health, marriage and enjoyment of the holidays.
“We now dread all of the holidays, especially Christmas,” Terri Swarthout said.
The Swarthouts were among a group of family members to stand in front San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy on Thursday during the sentencing hearing for Las Vegas truck driver Philip Trujillo. They told the stories of the four who died, Crystal Reuck, David Castillo, Karen Szaz and Taylor Swarthout, on the night of Dec. 24, 2014, when the vehicle they were riding in slammed into Trujillo’s tractor trailer as he was making a lefthand turn at the Wellsona intersection on Highway 101.
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For his role in their deaths, Trujillo was sentenced to eight years in prison.
A jury in May found Trujillo guilty of four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, one count for each death that came as a result of the collision with the vehicle being driven by Reuck.
Brenda Gehrke, Szaz’s mother, said her daughter was as beautiful as she was smart, but that she spent Christmas Day 2014 “cold and alone” at the coroner’s office. And instead of celebrating her daughter’s 46th birthday, Gehrke said that was the day Szaz was cremated.
Rebecca Zemke, Szaz’s sister, said their family was already reeling from her son’s death from a heroin overdose, and that Szaz returned from a vacation in Alaska to be there for her sister.
“There is a void in my life that can never be filled, a lingering emptiness,” Zemke said.
Larry Reuck, Crystal Reuck’s grandfather, spoke of his granddaughter’s devotion to others. Himself a truck driver for 30 years, Larry Reuck said there were words he wanted to use to describe Trujillo’s actions that he couldn’t use in court.
All the relatives said Trujillo showed no remorse.
Though nobody spoke on Trujillo’s behalf Thursday and he declined to speak for himself, Duffy received several letters from friends and relatives of the defendant.
His ex-wife, Leanor Trujillo, wrote that “he is a good man. He has been a good father and supported his boys.”
Kenneth Trujillo, the defendant’s son, wrote: “When this incident happened, my father was crushed. My father described this incident to me as ‘the worst thing to ever happen to him.’ ”
Trujillo’s niece, Samantha Trujillo, wrote that her uncle “is a loving man without malice in his soul; he was simply a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Raymond Allen, Trujillo’s attorney, asked Duffy not to hold Trujillo’s decision not to speak against him; Allen said Trujillo stayed silent on his advice while he worked to secure a new trial.
Judge Duffy denied that motion Thursday, as well as Allen’s allegation that Deputy District Attorney Charles Blair committed prosecutorial misconduct by telling the jury that Allen didn’t believe his own defense during Blair’s closing argument.
Duffy also denied a request to postpone the sentencing after Allen said the probation officer who compiled the sentencing report “did not do an adequate job.”
Blair said the report was “consistent with every other probation report I’ve seen in this county.”