LAKEWOOD, Colo. — The man convicted after a crash on Interstate 70 that left four people dead was sentenced to 110 years in prison Monday afternoon.
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was 23 when his semi-truck slammed into stopped traffic on the interstate near Denver West Parkway on April 25, 2019. Four people died instantly from the impact: Doyle Harrison, William Bailey, Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano and Stanley Politano. It is believed they all died from injuries and not the resulting fire.
Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty by a jury on 27 counts in total. The most serious charges were four counts of vehicular manslaughter. Other counts he was found guilty of included first-degree assault, first-degree attempt to commit assault, vehicular assault, reckless driving and careless driving.
He was found not guilty on 15 counts of first-degree attempt to commit assault.
Judge A. Bruce Jones sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to the required 10-year minimum for each of the six counts of first-degree assault with extreme indifference, to be served consecutively.
He was also sentenced to the required minimum of five years for 10 additional counts of attempted first-degree assault with extreme indifference. Those will be served consecutively as well.
The judge said the legislature required him to order those sentences be served consecutively, which was why, he said, he issued the minimum sentence for those charges. However, he did say he may have sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to more than the minimum, if not required to issue the sentences consecutively.
"In all victim impact statements I read, I did not glean from them someone saying, 'He should be in prison for the rest of his life, and he should never, ever get out," Jones said. "Far from it. There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and serve time in prison, and I share those sentiments."
In addition to the 110 years stemming from those charges, Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 30 years for 11 other charges that will be served concurrently.
> Watch the judge's sentencing here:
Aguilera-Mederos was extremely emotional as he asked for forgiveness before Jones announced the sentence.
"I know it has been hard and heartbreaking for everyone involved," he said though tears. "I can't sleep, I think all the time about the victims. A part of me will be missing forever, as well."
Aguilera-Mederos said he took responsibility for the crash, and said it was not intentional. "I have never thought about hurting anyone in my entire life," he said.
"I hope to say sorry, sorry for the loss, sorry for the people in here, I know they hurt," Aguilera-Mederos said. "I know they have trauma, I know. I feel that. But please don't be angry with me, please."
> Watch Aguilera-Mederos speak during the sentencing hearing below:
Gage Evans, the wife of Bill Bailey, said in her victim impact statement that her confidence has been shattered since losing her husband.
"He was my teammate, we actually called ourselves 'Team Bailey-Evans,'" she said. "There was nothing that team Bailey-Evans couldn't handle. Now, without Bill, the team is no longer and I don't have the support I'm used to."
Evans said she has suffered from mental health issues throughout her life, and that Bailey was her main support system.
"My self-esteem and confidence rose sharply, immediately when I met Bill," Evans said. "He was the first person in my life with whom, I felt, I could be my true and honest self."
Catherine Harrison, the wife of Doyle Harrison, said in her statement that she is struggling to deal with decisions and situations they used to face together.
Harrison said she was willing to forgive Aguilera-Mederos, but that he accept responsibility and face consequences for the decisions that lead to the deadly crash.
"I do have a willingness to forgive, but forgiveness doesn't mean letting someone off the hook, [but] that they need to come to grips with what they've done and fully acknowledge their actions in how they were wrong, and seek that forgiveness," Harrison said.
The judge said his hands were tied when it came to sentencing, because Colorado's violent crime statute is specific.
9NEWS Legal Expert Scott Robinson said certain violent crimes require a minimum sentence for each victim, and they have to run consecutively. But he said there is one way for violent crime sentences to be reduced.
"Colorado's violent crimes statute gives judges some discretion after 180 days have passed," Robinson said. "Here, the sentencing judge, Bruce Jones, will have an opportunity to determine whether there were unusual and extenuating circumstances which would justify a reduction in the sentences imposed."
The judge said he could not assure the courtroom this would be the end of this process, giving an indication that he may consider a motion like that.
The jury had to decide whether the crash resulted from a series of bad choices by the driver or a mechanical failure that the driver had no control over.
Aguilera-Mederos faced 42 counts in all. He testified for hours and tearfully recounted publicly for the first time his version of what happened on that day.
Watch Aguilera-Mederos tell his story for the first time publicly while testifying below:
Both sides agreed that his truck lost brakes at some point, but they disagreed on how or why that happened.
"There's only two ways this can go: Either the defendant didn't catch it like he was supposed to, or the defendant drove on his brakes the entire way and caused them to be that way," said Deputy District Attorney Kayla Wildeman.
The defense countered that the brakes were bad on the trailer before Aguilera-Mederos left Texas days earlier and that he should not be blamed for parts that were not properly maintained.
"Had those trailer brakes been operable and had they been functioning and properly maintained before that trailer left Houston, this accident never would have happened," said defense attorney James Colgan. "Mr. Mederos had no idea that what he was dragging behind him from Houston was an inoperable trailer. He had no idea that when he needed those trailer brakes, they weren't going to exist."
After the brakes were out, prosecutors argued that Aguilera-Mederos made a series of bad choices that resulted in the crash. One of them being his failure to use a runaway truck ramp on the highway.
"He saw that ramp," Wildeman said. "But what he did was a cost benefit analysis. He looked at it and said I can baby this down the hill. I can get this down, and so he goes past it. And it's not until he sees the traffic that he realizes, 'Oh, crap.' He made a choice. He chose to pass that."
Colgan argued that it wasn't on purpose and that at the time he passed the ramp, Mederos was weaving on the highway to avoid cars.
"Contrary to what the prosecution has said, he didn't purposely avoid the runaway truck ramp. He was moving in and out of traffic," Colgan said. "Maybe there was some tunnel vision going on here. If anyone has ever been under stress, especially unexpected stress just think about that for second. You focus on one thing."
Colgan also said it wasn't obvious where this ramp was.
"And if this is the first time you've ever driven it under a period of unexpected stress, it's unfair to say, well you purposefully avoided that runaway ramp. That isn't what happened."
After losing his brakes, Mederos himself said that he planned to stay on the shoulder until he could get to more flat area and slow down the truck.
"The decision I took was that I was going to continue on the shoulder, but there was another 18-wheeler that was parked there underneath the bridge," he said.
He said he tried to use a space in between the truck and the car next to it on the left and began swerving between cars "like a snake" because he was trying to avoid the vehicles.
"So the semi was here. So what I did was to hit the trailer, which is something that is bigger, so that the truck would slow in speed, but once I hit it, I was not able to control anything," he said.
Watch the closing arguments below:
Wildeman said that the commercial driver's license manual tells drivers exactly what to do if there no ramp. So she argued he had other options after passing it.
"He didn't care about the other people on the road; he cared about himself," she said. "He was all the way in the left lane – swerved all the way over the shoulder. He saw that Beauty Mattress truck pulled up – came up and he thought, 'If I hit that truck, I'm going to die.' So then he swerved into traffic.
"He picks the choice where he 100% knows people are going to be hit. They're going to die and they're going to be hurt. He avoids all the semi trucks. He chooses the smaller cars where he knows he's not going to die. He takes that path right through. He swerved into a sea of cars that were sitting ducks with nowhere to go."
Colgan admitted that Mederos was "overwhelmed" and even inexperienced, but he made the best decisions he could given the position he found himself in.
"The truth of the matter is that by the time this truck got to the bottom of the hill, there were no options available. All the options were not available where no one was going to get hurt," he said. "It's easy to be an armchair quarterback. It's very easy to say 'This is what I would have done.' But the fact that Mr. Mederos was not willing to commit suicide doesn't make him a killer."
Watch the full reading of the verdict below:
Brett Dickerson said while testifying that Aguilera-Mederos seemed "terrified" when he made eye contact with him on the highway near Evergreen prior to the crash. He said he first noticed that Aguilera-Mederos was changing lanes more frequently than he's typically seen a big truck do.
He testified that he eventually decided to get past the truck, which he described as driving "erratic." Dickerson said he was going around 80 mph when he went past the truck but made eye contact with the driver as he went by.
"He seemed like he wasn't in control of the vehicle at that time," Dickerson said. "I just saw a very terrified look."
Roman Hernandez-Chicon, a commercial truck driver who testified in Spanish through a translator in court, said he'd been a truck driver for about 20 years and was headed back from Chatfield State Park to Commerce City when he was caught in the crash.
Hernandez-Chicon said he was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic when he felt his truck get hit hard on the right and something went past him "like a bullet" and then he heard explosions. He said he grabbed a fire extinguisher but quickly realized the fire was much too large for it to have any effect.
Hernandez-Chicon said he then went to the area behind the crash and attempted to get drivers behind the crash to turn around, which he said allowed enough space for fire crews to get to the scene and begin fighting the fire.
Hernandez-Chicon suggested in court testimony that Aguilera-Mederos had options besides running into the stopped traffic. He said that he could have used the truck ramp, intentionally driven into the guardrail, or lay the truck down its side, when he knew he was in trouble but before he had reached the stopped traffic.
However, Hernandez-Chicon also noted the maneuver is "very dangerous" and that it might be nearly impossible for a driver who was already panicked to pull off. He also said those options aren't taught but are something he's learned over his years of experience driving big rigs.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is conducting a survey on how familiar semi-truck drivers are with mountain roads -- especially escape ramps.
CDOT said the feedback from this survey will help them determine the placement and design of a new runaway truck ramp on eastbound I-70, just before the scene of that crash.
The survey asks drivers for their experience level, type of employment and familiarity levels when it comes to mountain driving.
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