An Illinois trucker whose tractor-trailer slammed into the back of stopped traffic on I-80 in western Nebraska a year ago, killing a Maryland family moving to California, has reached an agreement with prosecutors that could send him to prison for 20 years.
Josef Slezak, 37, has agreed to plead guilty to four counts of motor vehicle homicide and one count of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn fetus. In return, prosecutors have agreed to recommend Slezak receive an aggregate sentence of no more than 20 years, according to paperwork filed by the Cheyenne County Attorney’s office.
The crash killed an entire family, including an unborn child.
Dead in the crash were 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 with their third son, who they had named Ethan. They were traveling through Nebraska, moving from Maryland to California.
Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub originally charged Slezak with four counts of manslaughter and the single count related to the death of the unborn child. He also filed the four counts of motor vehicle homicide and added a fifth when the autopsy revealed that Diana was pregnant.
It appears Slezak was asleep at the wheel when the crash occurred.
Testimony given at a three-hour preliminary hearing in Cheyenne County last year 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.
Nebraska State Trooper Travis Wallace testified that driver fatigue appeared 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 3 o’clock in the afternoon Central Time September 8, 2012 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.
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 Commercial Driver’s License, 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. Schmidt’s car was last in a line of vehicles stopped due to the accident. The impact forced Schmidt’s car into the rear of a 2007 Toyota Corolla driven by his 28-year-old wife, Diana. The couple’s two sons were passengers in the Toyota. The crash propelled the Corolla forward, driving it underneath the trailer of a truck stopped in front of her. The cars burst into flames.
Witnesses estimated that Slezak was traveling about 75 miles per hour.
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.
Dave Collins, KSID, contributed to this report.