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Why an RTD train operator won't be charged in the light rail crash that severed a woman's leg

Prosecutors said they did not have sufficient evidence to meet the necessary statutes to charge Jeremiah Hartzel.

AURORA, Colo. — Prosecutors concluded that a train operator's actions caused a crash in January that severed a woman's leg and injured three other people, but said no criminal charges will be filed in the case.

The 18th Judicial District Attorney's office made that announcement in a letter to the Aurora Police Department Friday. 

Jeremiah Hartzel was operating a Regional Transportation District (RTD) R Line train on the snowy, icy morning of Jan. 28, 2019 when it derailed in Aurora, according to the 18th Judicial District District Attorney. 

A woman who was standing on the train was thrust into the train car’s door, and was ejected due to the force from the impact. A part of that car hit the ground and scraped along the street as the train tilted. It also hit the woman's leg below the knee, severing her leg and foot, the decision letter says.

Prosecutors said Hartzel's caused the crash. But District Attorney George Brauchler said that because of current law, they felt they could not charge him.

"In that letter we set forth the facts that we found through our own investigation as well as their's and then compared it to the laws and told them that we didn't think we had the ability to ethically prosecute in this particular case," Brauchler said.

What happened

The train departed the Aurora Metro Station at 7:13 a.m. headed for the Florida Station, according to a decision letter from the DA. To reach that station, the train had to maneuver through two 90-degree turns.

Computer records reviewed by the district attorney and police indicate that Hartzel initially applied moderate acceleration and reached a speed of 17 mph about 316 feet after leaving the station. 

He then applied full acceleration, which caused the train to reach a speed of 38.5 mph, the decision letter says. The speed limit posted on that section of track is 35 mph.

RELATED: Woman ejected from train after it derails in Aurora during early morning snowstorm

Within less than a second of reaching 38.5 mph, Hartzel applied full brakes, the letter says. Within a second of those being applied, a second braking system known as the "track brakes" was also applied, which resulted in rapid deceleration.

Shortly after that, the train's sensors detected that the wheels were sliding on the track and sand was deployed on the tracks from containers on the train's undercarriage to provide additional traction.

Credit: KUSA

Finally, Hartzel pulled the throttle back to the "emergency braking" position, the decision letter says. However, by the time that happened, the train had arrived at the 90-degree turn at Exposition Avenue and was still traveling 30 mph. The speed limit for the curve is 10 mph.

Due to the excessive speed, the train could not negotiate the turn, and the right inside wheels derailed, which tilted the train significantly to the left.

RELATED: RTD: Operator of derailed light rail train in Aurora approached curve too fast, causing woman to be ejected

The wheels have a "flange" that is designed to keep the wheels on the track, but due to the extreme angle at which the train tilted, they failed. Ultimately the train struck a pole, which knocked the train back to the center and prevented it from completely rolling on its left side.

The extreme tilt caused the stepwells — used when passengers board the train — to hit the roadway. The force caused the train's frame to deform in the area of the stepwell where the doors are also located.

The doors are secured with multiple roller devices, which are designed to withstand 600 pounds of outward pressure.  

However, the amount of pressure generated by the stepwells striking the road combined with the pressure on the frame caused the doors to pop open.

A passenger, identified in the letter as "K.M.," was standing in the second segment of the car. Video from the train shows K.M. losing her balance as the train whipped to the left and falling out of the train through the open doors. She landed on the ground a short distance from the train as it kept moving forward, the decision letter says.

The train has a wedge-shaped guard at the end of the car, which is designed to remove any obstructions from the track. The left corner of the device hit the ground and scraped along the street as the train tilted. 

It also hit K.M.'s leg below the knee, severing her leg and foot, the decision letter says.

According to the decision letter, it is "apparent that the combination of a higher speed and a later braking resulted in the train not having sufficient time to decelerate" before entering the 90-degree turn. 

The letter also says, "once the train entered the curve at a high rate of speed, a derailment was essentially inevitable."

Blood samples were taken from Hartzel following the incident, and no signs of drugs or alcohol impairment were found.

Why charges are not being filed

Despite those findings, the DA said no criminal charges will be filed. 

Hartzel had faced charges of:

  • First-degree assault by extreme indifference.
  • Second-degree assault.
  • Multiple counts of third-degree assault.

Prosecutors noted that they could not establish a charge of first-degree assault because there was no evidence to support that Hartzel "knowingly failed to maintain a safe speed or to brake sufficiently in the curve." 

They said that Hartzel, "simply didn't recognize the problem sufficiently in advance to prevent the situation."

To prove second-degree assault, prosecutors have to prove recklessness. By law, Hartzel would have had to perceive the risk and then disregard it. Prosecutors said all indications show that when Hartzel became aware of the risk, he took steps to stop or slow the train but was unsuccessful.

Prosecutors also noted that various traffic violations would not apply because they specifically relate to motor vehicles, and the light rail train is not considered a vehicle. 

Therefore charges such as reckless driving or careless driving could not be considered. 

"In this case at best we could prove negligence but the problem is, being negligent behind the wheel of a train for lack of a better term requires that you have used that train as a deadly weapon and we don't think that happened here," Brauchler explained.

There are no criminal laws specific to the operation of light rail trains in Colorado, which in essence means there are no laws that relate to Hartzel's actions as a light rail operator.

"I think like anybody else, when you hear that an operator of a train did something that caused that train to come partially off the tracks and severe the leg below the knee of a completely innocent person you think, 'of course there's got to be some kind of criminal liability for that,'” Brauchler said.

But there isn't.

"If you were to drive a bus and you hit someone and severed their leg that would likely be careless driving resulting in injury and that punishable by something,” Brauchler said. “There just isn't anything like that, we could find for trains. Look, did this guy make mistakes? Absolutely. Did those mistakes result in the injury of an innocent person? 100 percent. But short of us having a law that says those two things are all that's needed to prosecute, we can't move forward. Ethical prosecution requires, that if our facts don't match up with the laws that exist on the books, we can't ethically move forward and that's what happened here. We're missing something."

Despite Aurora Police recommending criminal charges against Hartzel, Brauchler said he didn't feel he could move forward based on those current laws.

"Let's be clear, this letter doesn't absolve this person's responsibility for her injury,” he said. "I think he's at fault for her injury but the difference between me thinking he's at fault and being able to use the power of the state to bring him into a criminal courtroom are two different things. If what we want to do is hold train operators to some standard, to what we would hold a bus operator or a car driver or motorcycle driver then we're going to need to have a change in the law."

Brauchler said the woman who was injured in this crash and who was only identified in the letter with the initials K.M., is aware of his decision and understands the limitations of the law. 

He also said this decision has no bearing on what she can do in civil court. 

That means if she wants to bring a civil case against Hartzel, she can.

Hartzel had worked as train operator with RTD since 2017. He submitted his resignation on Feb. 11 of this year citing scheduling conflicts with school. In a release on Feb. 15, RTD said after its own investigation Hartzel was terminated.

In that same release, RTD General Manager and CEO David Genova said the train derailment and woman being ejected from the light rail was something that RTD had “never experienced” in nearly 25 years.

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