April 23, 2014

Trucker charged in I-80 traffic crash that killed family keeps quiet in court

A trucker accused of killing a Maryland family in a fatal traffic crash on I-80 in western Nebraska last fall didn’t udder a word when he appeared in Cheyenne County District Court today for arraignment.

36-year-old Josef Slezak, a truck driver from Rivergrove, Illinois, faced nine felony charges silently during his arraignment. The court entered not guilty pleas on his behalf on four charges of manslaughter, four courts of motor vehicle homicide and one charge of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child.

Slezak will next appear in court April 3rd for a status hearing.

Testimony given at a three-hour preliminary hearing in Cheyenne County in late September revealed that there is no evidence Slezak slowed down as he approached a line of traffic stopped on the interstate due to a previous fatal accident. Slezak is charged with four manslaughter counts in the death of the husband and wife and their two small sons. Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub also filed four counts of motor vehicle homicide, adding a fifth when the autopsy revealed that the wife was pregnant with the couple’s third child.

Nebraska State Trooper Travis Wallace testified that driver fatigue appears to be an issue in the case. Wallace stated there was no evidence Slezak slowed down or tried to evade traffic that was stopped on the interstate near Potter, due to that previous fatal accident nearly a mile ahead.

State Trooper Art Frerichs, a post-crash inspector, testified that his investigation found Slezak left Midwest Refrigerated Services in Milwaukee, Wisconsin about 3pm Central Time September 8th and was on-duty until the early morning hours of the crash in Cheyenne County on September 9th, nearly 15 hours later, which would exceed regulations. Frerichs said it would take a minimum of 13 hours and 10 minutes to make the Milwaukee-to-Cheyenne County drive.

County Attorney Paul Schaub argued, “It’s clear the defendant left Wisconsin and drove non-stop from Milwaukee to Cheyenne County” even though with a CDL he’s obligated to stop and get rest.

The series of tragic events began around 4:30am MT on September 9th, when a disabled truck driven by 66-year-old Vladamir Zhukov of Wheeling, IL stalled in one of the west-bound lanes of I-80. A semi tractor-trailer driven by 27-year-old Keith A. Johnson of Big Lake, MN crashed into the stalled truck. Johnson died in the wreck. Zhukov was not injured.

As emergency crews responded to that accident, the truck driven by Slezak traveling west on I-80 failed to heed warning signs and plowed into the back of a 2010 Ford Mustang, driven by 30-year-old Christopher Schmidt of Gaithersburg, MD. The impact forced Schmidt’s car into the rear of a 2007 Toyota Corolla driven by his 28-year-old wife, Diana. The crash propelled the Corolla forward, driving it underneath the trailer of a truck stopped in front of her.

The crash killed Christopher Schmidt, Diana Schmidt and their two children; 3-year-old Samuel Schmidt and 2-year-old Conner Schmidt. Diana Schmidt was approximately 30 weeks pregnant.

By Dave Collins, KSID