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Trucker faces 9 felony counts following Nebraska accident

Illinois truck driver Josef Slezak is facing nine felony counts as the result of an accident that killed a Maryland family Sunday in western Nebraska. (Courtesy: CHEYENNE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE)

The Trucker Staff


POTTER, Neb. — Five people are dead and an Illinois truck driver is in jail facing nine felony counts following two related traffic accidents on Interstate 80 here early Sunday.

Published reports show that at 4:22 a.m. MDT, the Cheyenne County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report that a tractor-trailer, operated by Vladimir Zhukov, 66, of Oak Park, Ill., was stalled on the interstate near mile marker 38 and had been hit from behind by a tractor-trailer driven by Keith A. Johnson, 27, of Big Lake, Minn.

Johnson died in the impact.

The stalled truck and accident had backed up traffic in the westbound lanes when the second accident occurred near mile marker 41.

There, authorities said, a tractor-trailer driven by Josef Slezak, 36, River Grove, Ill., rammed into 2010 Ford Mustang driven by Christopher Schmidt, 30, of Gaithersburg, Md., which in turn rammed into a 2007 Toyota Corolla that was operated by Schmidt’s wife, Diana, also of Gaithersburg, and in which the couple’s two children, Connor, 2, and Samuel, 3, were traveling.

The impact propelled Diana Schmidt’s car into a tractor-trailer driven by William David Weiner, 49, of Algona, Iowa.

All the vehicles involved burst into flames, authorities said, but Weiner was able to disconnect his trailer before the fire reached his cab.

All four of the Schmidts died at the scene.

An autopsy later revealed that Diana Schmidt was 30 weeks pregnant.

Slezak was at first charged with eight felony counts, four each of manslaughter and vehicular homicide.

After learning that Mrs. Schmidt was pregnant, Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub amended the charge to a ninth count of vehicular homicide of an unborn child, a Class IV felony.

Slezak is being held in the Cheyenne County jail on $1 million bond.

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 24.

Schaub said Slezak drove for AKI Trucking.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website, the physical address for AKI Trucking is Romeoville, Ill., a Chicago suburb, while its mailing address if Noblesville, Ind., just outside Indianapolis. FMCSA violation reports list yet a third address in West Layfayette, Ind.

Google map satellite views show all three addresses as being in residential areas with no trucking terminal in the picture.

A person named who identified himself as “Andy“ answered the phone at the company's listed telephone number, but said he was not authorized to provide any information.

Also according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website, AKI Trucking has a Fatigued Driving (Hours of Service) BASIC score of 80.9 percent, which exceeds the threshold for intervention by 15.9 percent.

It is the only category for the carrier that exceeds the intervention threshold.

The company has had five out-of-service violations in the Fatigued Driving category during the past 24 months.

Weiner told authorities that there was plenty of citizen's band “chatter” while he was stopped in the driving lane and that other truckers were warning others to slow down due to the initial accident.

That's when Weiner said he looked in his rearview mirror and saw a semi rapidly approaching and that the vehicle was not slowing down.

An eastbound driver also radioed that the same semi was apparently not going to slow down.

Weiner said he saw at least one passenger vehicle behind him and he braced for contact, then managed to separate his rig from the trailer following the impact.

Among the NSP troopers responding was Travis Wallace, who serves as an accident scene reconstructionist.

Wallace's investigation revealed that according to skid marks, impact marks, location of debris and other particulars, it appeared Slezak had failed to reduce his speed and did not exercise due caution to avoid collision with stationary vehicles that were stopped due to the first accident.

Slezak, who told authorities he was originally from “the former Czechoslovakian Republic, was later interviewed at the Sheriff's Office and requested a Czechoslovakian interpreter.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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