Owner of trucking company involved in fatal, fiery crash never knew driver was in Colorado mountains
The owner of the company that employed Rogel Aguilera-Mederos consulted neighbors, the internet before starting a one-truck operation out of her Texas home.
The trucking company involved in a fiery and fatal 2019 crash in Lakewood was little more than a one-truck operation run by a woman who consulted neighbors, friends and the internet before starting her business out of her Houston home, according to a 9Wants to Know investigation.
The company has largely avoided public scrutiny before and after the high-profile conviction of its one and only driver, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos.
Documents obtained by 9NEWS show that Castellano 03 Trucking did little to vet Aguilera-Mederos before he ventured onto one of the state’s most infamous trucking routes.
Aguilera-Mederos was less than two weeks into his job with Castellano 03 Trucking when, according to prosecutors, he overused his brakes in the Colorado mountains, causing them to fail when he needed them the most.
Nearing speeds of 85 mph, he had no good options when his semi and lumber-filled trailer quickly approached a traffic jam on Interstate 70 near Colorado Mills. The resulting crash killed four and involved 28 vehicles.
They 'didn't do their job':
“The driver himself should have never been in that truck,” Texas attorney Mike McCormick told 9NEWS. “The people who put him in that truck or allowed that truck to be on the road didn’t do their job.”
McCormick ought to know.
In 2019, after the crash, he interviewed the owner of Castellano 03 Trucking as part of a deposition for a possible lawsuit.
Combined with newly released court documents, the deposition – made public here for the first time – suggests Castellano 03 Trucking failed to ensure its only driver was prepared for the challenging I-70 descent west of Denver.
In fact, when quizzed by McCormick during the deposition, Castellano 03 Trucking’s owner confessed that Aguilera-Mederos never should have been on that route in the first place.
“He shouldn’t be on that mountain,” said Yaimy Galan Segura.
Nearly three years later, Castellano 03 Trucking is no more. Its $750,000 in liability insurance, the federal minimum for trucking companies, is long gone. Most families impacted by this received nothing.
The driver is serving a 10-year prison sentence after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reduced it from a judge’s 110-year sentence.
RELATED: Polis says he commuted trucker's sentence to end circus around case; judge expresses frustration
Victims' families feel defeated:
Families of those killed said they feel defeated by a system that has done nothing to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Gage Evans said. “We’re just trying to keep things from getting worse.”
Evans’ husband, Bill Bailey, was one of the four who died in the crash.
Bailey, 67, loved the absurd. Puns and wit drew him in. Model rockets and drones brought him joy.
The latter is what he was doing at a park on the day of the crash.
When Bailey didn’t come home the night of April 25, 2019, his wife of nearly two decades didn’t immediately assume the worst.
“At first, I didn’t know anything about the crash,” Evans said.
Bailey’s brother, Duane, knew a lot about it. Coverage on the local news that day was virtually nonstop. He watched the videos of the massive flames in horror.
That night, Evans called Duane Bailey to chat.
“First thing Gage said to me was, ‘Have you heard from Bill?' " Duane Bailey said. "And I’m watching scenes from the crash on television. My mind immediately went to, ‘Where is he supposed to be?’ ”
Days later, the coroner’s office confirmed what he had feared.
Bill Bailey was one of four people who died that day. Also killed: Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, Stanley Politano and Doyle Harrison.
Bailey’s car was unrecognizable. When prosecutors presented evidence at the criminal trial for Aguilera-Mederos, they showed jurors a picture of his charred key.
Evans wears his wedding ring on a necklace these days.
“It was just crusted in black” when she received it, she said. “I wear it everyday.”
Evans said she didn’t immediately think about hiring a lawyer. Her brother-in-law thought otherwise.
“Duane kept suggesting I do it,” she said.
By the time she did, the $750,000 insurance policy carried by Castellano 03 Trucking was gone.
How the trucking company started:
Hardly surprising in a crash that also left 10 people injured, some of whom were left with severe, life-altering injuries.
“Castellano 03 Trucking was out of business by the time I took [Its owner’s] deposition,” McCormick said.
The owner, Segura, was never required to carry more insurance. The $750,000 minimum, set by Congress in 1980, has yet to increase despite repeated efforts to do so.
Segura has not responded to numerous calls and texts seeking comment.
Castellano 03 Trucking was the brainchild of Segura after she had a conversation with a neighbor.
“It’s a friend that we have that – the same street where I live at,” she said during the 2019 deposition.
“So one of your neighbors had a trucking company and were doing pretty well at it?” asked McCormick, who represents the widow of Doyle Harrison.
“Yes,” Segura replied.
“Did you consult any professionals to assist you in getting the company started?” McCormick asked.
“No,” Segura said.
Instead, according to the deposition, Segura said she went through websites to “look for information, how to open it, how to operate.”
She formed a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC, and named it after the Cuban town her mom was born in.
While Castellano 03 eventually leased three other trucks, it owned only one.
When Aguillera-Mederos applied for a job in 2019, he applied to be the driver of that truck. His interview consisted of a “25, 30 miles trip to see how he was operating the truck,” Segura said.
A later investigation conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that Aguilera-Mederos had “obtained his interstate CDL [Commercial Driver’s License] less than a year” prior.
It found his training to be less than ideal.
“[Castellano 03] did not ensure this entry-level driver received required training prior to operating in interstate commerce," the investigation says. "His application was missing his most recent previous employer and the carrier had not conducted background checks with this carrier.”
Why might that have been a problem?
Aguilera-Mederos' previous employer “stated that he fired Rogel because he did not know how to drive a stick shift.”
Aguilera-Mederos was less than two weeks into his job with Castellano 03 Trucking when he drove a truck with automatic transmission from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Saratoga, Wyoming, on the morning of April 25, 2019.
Cellphone records presented during his trial indicate he drove north on Interstate 25 to Cheyenne before heading west on southern Wyoming’s stretch of Interstate 80. It was a relatively flat route for the relatively new driver.
The pickup was arranged with the help of a shipping broker known as Shipping Connections. The broker acted as a go-between with Castellano 03 and a lumberyard in Saratoga, Wyoming.
Once his trailer was filled with lumber, Aguilera-Mederos faced a decision: He could go back via the route he came, or he could head south into the heart of Colorado’s mountains.
During an interview with investigators, Aguilera-Mederos said he chose the latter on the idea that I-70 might offer better prices at the gas stations.
“They sell petroleum at a cheaper price,” he explained in Spanish.
In Granby, a local gas station’s surveillance camera recorded his truck quickly tailgating an SUV.
On the other side of Berthoud Pass, a witness during the criminal trial said he saw Aguilera-Mederos on the side of the road checking smoking brakes.
Aguilera-Mederos continued south where he got on I-70 and headed east.
When the brakes failed:
It’s a section of road well-known by truckers. The signs warning them of the rapid descent are everywhere. There’s a runaway truck ramp should truckers get in a bind with their brakes.
At trial, experts testified that they believed Aguilera-Mederos’ continued reliance on his brakes over downshifting caused his brakes to fail.
At least two people in cars near him were so concerned about the driving they recorded on their phones his final few minutes.
During an interview with investigators, Aguilera-Mederos explained, in Spanish, “The only thing I remember here is that I thought I was going to die.”
Video below: Empire Nissan surveillance footage from April 25, 2019, shows Rogel Aguilera-Mederos' semi, with brakes smoking, speed on I-70 eastbound near Indiana Street, less than a mile from the crash site.
Aguilera-Mederos didn’t die when his truck crashed into traffic at I-70 and Colorado Mills Parkway. Black smoke that rose from the crash scene -- visible on a Colorado State trooper’s dashcam -- suggested others wouldn’t be so fortunate.
During the interview with investigators, Aguilera-Mederos suggested he had driven I-70 in that same section at least a couple of times. It’s not clear whether that’s true.
“We can’t find any evidence that he had any experience driving in [Colorado’s] mountains at all,” McCormick said.
Lawsuits and liability:
The day after the crash, a new trucking company arose inside the same address that housed Castellano 03.
Volt Trucking LLC continued driving one truck well into 2020, according to federal trucking records.
With Castellano 03 dissolved in 2019 and its insurance gone, plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits turned their attention toward the shipping broker that hired Castellano 03.
Shipping Connections, based out of Arkansas, acts as a third party, in essence, between someone who needs stuff moved and a trucking company capable of moving that stuff.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of Gage Evans claims, “Shipping Connections had a duty to exercise reasonable care in hiring, retaining, selecting, dispatching and supervising their drivers, contractors and agents.”
It blames Shipping Connections “in failing to vet, investigate, evaluate, background check or adequately review” Castellano 03 Trucking prior to hiring it to deliver lumber.
In a 2020 motion, Shipping Connections maintained it “was not aware that Aguilera-Mederos was the driver assigned by Castellano, or the route that Aguilera-Mederos chose to take – which ended with the fatal crash in Colorado.”
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Chris Vanderveen with tips about this story: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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