Jul. 25, 2007
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
FOUR TO 24 YEARS: Trucker gets sent to prison
Driver in November crash that killed four, injured six
A trucker who plowed his tractor-trailer rig into a traffic jam on Interstate 15 last year killing four people and injuring six was sentenced to four to 24 years in prison Tuesday.
Milson Sabino Oliveira Filho, 52, sobbed and his body shook as he talked of his remorse about the crash and said faulty brakes were to blame for the deaths.
"I was about to get off on the Cheyenne exit and at the last minute I decided not to and lost control of my truck," Oliveira, who speaks Portuguese, told Senior District Judge Charles Thompson through an interpreter. "It was a horrible fatality."
Oliveira, an independent trucker, was driving a trailer full of paper pulp from Utah to Southern California about 9:25 p.m. Nov. 16 when he barrelled up behind traffic that had slowed to a crawl in a construction zone on the southbound side of the freeway near Cheyenne Avenue.
Oliveira said his speed was 50 mph, but Chief Deputy District Attorney L.J. O'Neale said investigators estimated it was 60 mph.
O'Neale said he believed fatigue also played a role in the crash.
Oliveira's driving logs were inaccurate, but investigators were able to determine that he had been driving for 7 1/2 more hours than federal regulations allow, O'Neale said.
Federal hours-of-service rules allow interstate commerce truckers to drive up to 11 hours in any 14-hour shift before they must take 10 consecutive hours off.
Oliveira said his brakes failed him.
"I tried to stop the truck by throwing it against the divider," Oliveira said as he wept. "I kept doing that but it wouldn't stop."
Thirteen vehicles were part of the pileup in front of Oliveira's truck.
The collision catapulted the car being driven by Robert Allen Newsted Jr., killing the 31-year-old steel company supervisor. His infant son was strapped into a car seat and survived the wreck.
But everyone in the first vehicle struck by the 18-wheeler died: Arturo Cortez, 69, his wife Estrellita, 64, and their 7-year-old granddaughter Kayla, who was in the backseat.
The truck dragged the Cortezes' car "for more than 100 feet, leaving, I'm sorry to say, body parts in the road," O'Neale said.
Virginia resident and U.S. Air Force member Sarah Hamilton used her jacket to cover Kayla's body, the prosecutor said.
Other Air Force personnel who, like Hamilton, had been driving away from Nellis Air Force Base at the time of the crash, parked a vehicle on I-15 to block the little girl's body from traffic, O'Neale said.
Kayla's father, Arturo Cortez Jr., was in the courtroom for Oliveira's sentencing.
"I have lost both my parents and my only child," he said through tears. "They were the three most important people in my life. I was never given a chance to say goodbye to them.
"The truck he was driving became a weapon. Because of that I will never see my parents or my child ever again."
Cortez and his sister asked for the maximum sentence, which would have put Oliveira behind bars for 14 to 35 years. Cortez said he believed Oliveira chose to violate safety laws.
Gary Foster, a commercial vehicle safety inspector with the Nevada Highway Patrol examined the truck and completed a more than 100-page report, which O'Neale said found the brakes to be "essentially fine."
He said one of the brakes needed adjustment, but that would not have significantly impacted the ability to stop the truck.
Oliveira, a citizen of Brazil, also was in the United States illegally, O'Neale said, adding that immigration officials have no record of him entering the country legally.
But Oliveira said he had been in the country since 2000, legally. He also disputed that on the night of the crash he had been driving longer than allowed under federal law.
Anthony Goldstein, Oliveira's attorney, asked for the sentencing to be delayed because the lawyers defending Oliveira against the lawsuits filed by survivors of the victims had just located the truck and were conducting their own investigation of the truck's brakes.
Goldstein said Oliveira was "a safe driver."
California Department of Motor Vehicles records show that the Oliveira had been on one year of probation after he racked up six violation points against his commercial driver's license, including three convictions for breaking the state's 55-mph speed limit for tractor-trailers.
Goldstein asked for leniency for Oliveira, who has already been jailed for eight months. Goldstein said Oliveira did not have a criminal history and reckless driving is an offense for which defendants can receive probation rather than prison time.
"There's nothing you can do, nothing anyone can do, to bring back their loved ones," Goldstein said. "He's desperately sorry about what he did."
Oliveira pleaded guilty to seven counts of reckless driving in exchange for prosecutors dropping four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Goldstein asked the judge to allow the victims' families to seek redress in civil court.
At least two lawsuits have been filed against Oliveira, said Lawrence Smith, who is representing the Cortez family in their lawsuit against the truck driver.
Thompson, who was substituting for District Judge Michael Villani, denied the request to delay the sentencing, discounting the claim about the faulty brakes.
"It's pretty obvious to me (that) fatigue was the cause of the accident," Thompson said.
Thompson's sentence was more than the two years in prison recommended by the state Department of Parole and Probation. Thompson said the recommended sentence "neglects the fact that you killed four people."