Rob Corry, the attorney for Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, the 23-year-old truck driver from Houston accused of causing an enormous crash on Interstate 70 that killed four people on April 25, argues that the pileup was a tragic accident caused by a mechanical problem. He also contends that the charges against Aguilera-Mederos are excessive and reflect the enormous amount of media coverage the incident has garnered.
"You'd have to ask the prosecution. I'm not a mind reader. But I can speculate about why a politically elected prosecutor would bring these charges and how the extreme nature of them might be related to the attention the case has received," Corry says about 1st Judicial District DA Pete Weir's office. "This was international news: I have friends and family in Europe who told me they saw the story. So it's been everywhere, and the prosecutor is a politician who runs for office."
Weir declined to comment about Corry's assertions. But his spokeswoman, Pam Russell, notes that because Weir is term-limited, he won't be running for re-election in 2020.
Aguilera-Mederos bonded out of jail late on May 18, and Corry confirms that he's currently "in the state of Colorado, assisting me and his legal team with preparing his defense." However, he doesn't want to be more specific because "we have received some — I don't know if you'd call them threats, but his safety is important. So I don't want to give away his precise location."
In the meantime, Aguilera-Mederos took part in a Facebook Live video with his wife, Nailan Gonzalez, during which he expressed condolences to the friends and families of victims and thanked those who donated during fundraising efforts that facilitated his release. Legal reps typically warn defendants against speaking publicly before trial, but Corry signed off on it in part because "this is an unusual case, and the amount of press attention it's received has been extraordinary."
He stresses that "I'm not accusing the press of doing anything improper, and the case is of great importance to a lot of people. But much of this is being generated by the prosecution, and even though the rules generally prohibit trying cases in the media, defense attorneys are able to respond to the other side. So I authorized him to speak in general terms to his supporters, who see what happened as an accident — a tragic, horrible traffic accident, but an accident nevertheless. They look at things differently than the prosecution does."
Indeed, Weir's office hit Aguilera-Mederos with forty charges: six counts of first-degree assault, 24 counts of attempted first-degree assault, four counts of vehicular homicide by reckless driving, two counts of vehicular assault by reckless driving, one count of reckless driving, two counts of violent crime causing death or serious bodily injury and one count of violent crime using a weapon.
This last charge is a sentence-enhancer, with the weapon in question being Aguilera-Mederos's truck — and its use in prosecutions for fatal traffic mishaps is hardly commonplace. Note that in March, Weir didn't include violent crime using a weapon (or violent crime causing death or serious bodily injury) in the eleven charges put forward against William Lennox for a late-night collision in Golden that killed Margret Braun, 73, even though he was allegedly drunk (which Aguilera-Mederos was not) and hadn't bothered to turn on his lights. The accusations against Lennox are vehicular homicide — DUI, vehicular homicide — reckless, three counts of vehicular assault, three counts of vehicular assault causing seriously bodily injury, misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving and failure to display headlights.
In Corry's view, the message sent by treating a motor vehicle as a weapon — "Are we all driving weapons?" he wonders — could have serious repercussions. "Our economy runs because of the people who drive these large, eighteen-wheel semi-trucks. And if every time one of those gets involved in an accident, it becomes a homicide and a violent crime with a deadly weapon, those folks are going to quit their jobs and do other things."
As for what happened on the 25th, Corry says he can only speak in general terms because both sides are continuing to investigate the circumstances and he doesn't want to taint the testimony of potential witnesses. But, he allows, "I think it's patently obvious that there was a mechanical failure in the brakes. There's no other plausible explanation. Once you rule out the driver being suicidal — which Rogel clearly isn't, and everybody agrees on that — there's no other explanation for what happened than a mechanical failure."
While Aguilera-Mederos avoided this topic in his Facebook Live session, at Corry's urging, he's spoken up behind the scenes. "He sat down with law enforcement voluntarily for two hours, after spending hours in the hospital, and answered every question. He didn't take the fifth on any question, even though that was his right, and he didn't have a lawyer present, so there was no one filtering anything. It was him alone with multiple law enforcement officers. And he has a standing offer to speak to law enforcement if they have any follow-up questions. This isn't an adversarial process, where it's Rogel versus the people of Colorado. He wants answers, too, and he wants to assist in finding them."
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In the meantime, prosecutors are asking that Aguilera-Mederos be ordered to wear a GPS monitor in part because he allegedly tried to flee the scene of the crash. Because Corry is hoping this situation can be sorted out in advance of a May 31 hearing on the issue, "I can't talk about it extensively," he maintains. "But based on my 25 years as a lawyer litigating cases, GPS is generally used in cases where there's a single victim and it's designed to keep an accused person away from that one victim. It's not really about securing an appearance in court. That's the purpose of bond. And having gotten to know Rogel, he's not going to flee. If he was going to flee, he would have done it already. He's committed to our defense."
On video, Aguilera-Mederos admitted that he was under a psychologist's care and was emotionally at "rock bottom" — and Corry reveals that he broke down when the two of them inspected the remains of the truck earlier this week.
Of course, the families of victims are going through an even greater hell. But Corry believes that "from their perspective, what they want most, I think, is the truth. They want answers about why their loved ones had to die and why people were injured. Nothing can bring these people back, and it's so sad what happened. But Rogel is committed to helping get to the truth."
The spotlight will remain bright throughout this process, but Corry says, "I have no concerns about the media coverage. I have concerns about the prosecution initiating that coverage and fanning the flames, if you will."