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updated: 2/25/2015 5:55 AM

Prosecutors: Trucker in fatal I-88 crash said he 'cheated all the time'

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  • Renato Velasquez

    Renato Velasquez

  • Vincent Petrella

    Vincent Petrella

  • State trooper Douglas Balder talks to the media last summer while recovering from his injuries in the I-88 crash.

    State trooper Douglas Balder talks to the media last summer while recovering from his injuries in the I-88 crash.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

"I cheat all the time. You have to cheat to make money."

Prosecutors say that admission from Hanover Park truck driver Renato Velasquez is the cornerstone of their case to convict the 47-year-old of charges stemming from a fatal crash on the night of Jan. 27, 2014, along I-88 near Aurora.

Velasquez, whose trial opened Tuesday, is charged with operating a commercial motor vehicle while fatigued or impaired and making a false report of his record and duty status.

A tollway worker was killed and a state trooper seriously injured in the crash.

First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Ruggiero said during opening arguments that Velasquez had slept for only 3 hours during a 37-hour shift in which he traveled through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska before returning to the Chicago area.

Velasquez, prosecutors said, was to earn $1,280 for hauling the load to Nebraska.

"That's good money but it wasn't enough for this defendant,' Ruggiero said.

Velasquez then found a load of three steel rolls to be delivered back to the Chicago area from Cedar Bluff, Iowa for extra money.

"The defendant was doing two days of work in one day," Ruggiero said. "He says he does this all the time."

Along the way, Ruggiero said, Velasquez falsified his driving log to show he started his trip several hours later than he did to coincide with his gas receipts to make it appear he was in compliance with federal guidelines.

"Once you start work, you get 14 hours to drive 11 hours. Then you must take 10 consecutive hours off," Ruggiero said. "These laws are in place because we do not want a fatigued, tired, drowsy truck driver on the road hauling three 14,000 pound pieces of rolled steel."

Velasquez also is charged with failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and failure to yield to stationary emergency vehicles.

The crash occurred about 9:45 p.m. when state Trooper Douglas Balder and tollway worker Vincent Petrella were helping with a disabled semitrailer on eastbound I-88 near Eola Road in Aurora.

Ruggiero said both Petrella and Balder were sitting inside their parked vehicles, which had flashing emergency lights, and flares set up around them when they were struck from behind by a semi-truck driven by Velasquez.

A state police crash reconstruction expert testified that data recovered from Velasquez's truck indicated that he was traveling at 63 mph when the crash occurred, and he never hit the brake before impact.

Petrella, a Wheeling resident, was killed when one of the steel rolls became dislodged from Velasquez's trailer and smashed into the cab of Petrella's Tollway HELP truck. Balder suffered 13 broken ribs, a broken left scapula and severe burns over his entire left side when his squad's gas tank ruptured and his car, which was pushed into a ditch, was engulfed in flames.

Several troopers testified to the frenzied scene as they searched for Balder and comforted Petrella in his final moments as "mini explosions" went off around them as fire spread from Balder's squad to the HELP truck.

Balder, an eight-year veteran of the department, and a 20-year veteran of the Navy Reserves, testified Tuesday that his memory from the night is spotty because he blacked out when his squad was hit.

"I was sitting there waiting for the tow truck to finish its business then I woke up inside my car, burning alive," Balder said. "For some reason, I put my hand on the floor and my hand felt like it was melting. For some reason, my passenger window worked and the cold air and wind came rushing in."

Balder does not remember how he got out of the burning squad.

Velasquez's attorney, Steven Goldman, declined to make an opening statement.

The bench trial is expected to last through Wednesday. Prosecutors said they expect to call five more witnesses Wednesday before turning the case over to the defense.

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