It took jurors less than a day to convict Rogel Aguilera-Mederos on more than two dozen counts — including four counts of Vehicular Homicide — for causing a deadly crash that occurred April 25, 2019 on eastbound I-70 near Lakewood.
Twenty eight vehicles including four semi trucks were damaged in the accident that swiftly turned into a fiery inferno.
PREVIOUSLY: Eyewitness: "It was like a scene out of a movie"
The day before closing arguments were made, Aguilera-Mederos had taken the stand in his own defense. A native Spanish speaker who emigrated from Cuba in 2015, he testified through an interpreter.
Despite ongoing confusion during questioning, attorneys on both sides of the case were able to elicit answers from the defendant. In the end, jurors agreed with Prosecutors that Aguilera-Mederos was responsible for the accident and should be held accountable.
Aguilera-Mederos, who was just 23 at the time of the crash blamed malfunctioning brakes for the accident. Admittedly inexperienced in mountain driving, he said he performed necessary steps like stopping to inspect his brakes before embarking on the final dangerous stretch of eastbound I-70 before the crash occurred.
He had driven into Colorado from Saratoga Wyoming, traveling along Highway 40, where he had to traverse Berthoud Pass. Under direct examination, Aguilera-Mederos testified that once he’d made it beyond Berthoud Pass, he stopped to use the bathroom and inspect his brakes, making calls to more experienced drivers (his brother and his boss) to tell them he was on a dangerous route and to get their advice before continuing.
Witnesses in the case said they’d seen the brakes of the truck smoking along that stretch of Highway 40.
But Aguilera-Mederos refuted those accounts and eye-witness testimony from earlier in the trial, that he had been driving recklessly or speeding in the hours leading up to the crash.
Aguilera-Mederos said the truck’s brakes were functioning fine at that point and that only later, while driving down a steep grade on the west side of Genesee Hill, did he realize they had stopped functioning. According to his testimony, he was also unable to shift the truck’s transmission into a lower gear in an attempt to slow it down.
He told the jury the last thought he had before the crash was “dear God, don’t let anything bad happen.”
Much of the expert testimony during the trial focused on signs of “glazing” or extreme wear to the truck’s brakes. Prosecutors believes aggressive, reckless driving caused the inexperienced driver to burn through his brakes, precipitating the deadly collision.
In closing arguments, Prosecutor, Kayla Wildeman made the case to jurors that beyond causing the brakes to fail with his reckless driving, Aguilera-Mederos had several opportunities to avert the deadly accident, but didn’t act on any of them.
She said choices he made even moments before he crashed his truck into cars backed up on the freeway were designed to save himself with little regard for victims of the crash.
“He swerved into a sea of cars that were sitting ducks, with nowhere to go,” she said. “What else was going to happen except for death and people being injured?”
Wildeman closed by calling Aguilera-Mederos out for not rushing to the aid of the victims after the crash.
“He was knocking on doors asking for phones so that he could call his brother to come and pick him up so that he could leave,” she said.
In his closing arguments, Defense Attorney, James Colgan, said he was going to speak from the heart instead of presenting his written remarks. He said over the last year he’d re-read the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird a couple of times, recalling its subtext of fairness and equality in the American justice system.
“Only in America, does a man who speaks Spanish, is an immigrant from Cuba — can he expect to get a fair shake from a jury.” he said. “This would never happen in another country. Only in America could this happen. But it’s only going to happen if fairness enters the picture.”
He said people generally see what they look for, and see what they listen for. Continuing with the narrative that prosecutors were branding Aguilera-Mederos a killer, Colgan said his client was not perfect, but was not a killer. He painted a picture of Aguilera-Mederos a young, inexperienced, man overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. Colgan said witnesses who claimed to have seen his client speeding or driving recklessly prior to the accident were mistaken or were seeing what they wanted to see, in order to try to help solve the case.
Colgan also laid blame at the feet of Aguilera-Mederos’ boss, Raphael, who told him the truck was in good condition, and to take Highway 40 instead of Interstate 25 into Colorado.
“He’s a young kid, who’s got a job — his first real job as a truck driver — and he trusts his boss,” Colgan said. “Raphael said the truck was ok. When Raphael said don’t take Highway 287, don’t take I-25, the defendant said, okay, he’s my boss. That was his biggest mistake is that he trusted him (Raphael).
Colgan said Aguilera-Mederos did everything he knew how to do, to stop the truck. But everything failed. And that just because he didn’t choose to commit suicide by driving his truck into an underpass in an attempt to stop it, it didn’t make him a killer.
Sentencing for Aguilera-Mederos will take place Dec. 13.
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