Rogel Aguilera-Mederos wept as he testified in his own defense Thursday, recounting to a Jefferson County jury how he lost control of the semitrailer he was driving on Interstate 70 in April 2019 and crashed into stopped traffic, killing four people.
Aguilera-Mederos, 25, stopped frequently to regain his composure as he described how he’d intended to drive his speeding truck on the shoulder of the interstate until the steep terrain leveled out and he could slow down — his brakes were not working.
But that plan became impossible, he told the jury, when another 18-wheeler was parked in the shoulder under an overpass near Colorado Mills Parkway in Lakewood.
Testifying in Spanish through an interpreter, Aguilera-Mederos said he tried to hit the edge of the parked truck’s trailer to slow down and then attempted to steer toward what he described as a space between the parked truck and traffic stopped on the interstate.
“But once I hit it, I was unable to control anything,” he said, his voice breaking. “I thought, ‘Dear God, don’t let anything bad happen.’ At the moment of my impact, I closed my eyes and I hugged the wheel.”
Aguilera-Mederos is charged with more than 40 counts in connection with the crash, including vehicular homicide and assault. The fiery 28-vehicle pileup killed Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 24, William Bailey, 67, Doyle Harrison, 61, and Stanley Politano, 69. Six others were injured.
When his defense attorney asked about the four people who died, Aguilera-Mederos put his head in his arm and wept.
“I feel very badly, I wish that it had been me,” he testified.
The fatal trip was his first time driving a truck through mountains, he testified, though he had ridden with his brother, a truck driver, through similar terrain in the past.
On cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Kayla Wildeman focused on inconsistencies between Aguilera-Mederos’ testimony and what he’d told police in an initial interview, including that he’d told investigators he’d previously driven in Colorado’s mountains.
Aguilera-Mederos said he’d misunderstood the police officers’ questions.
“When I say mountain, I am referring to a small hill, and I am talking about dangerous hills going downwards,” he testified. “…That’s why I told the agent — if he asked me (about) mountains, I took it as a small hill. That’s why I said yes. If he had said grade, then I would have said no.”
Wildeman also questioned Aguilera-Mederos about why he did not take a runaway truck ramp that he passed after he lost his brakes, and asked him to explain why he continued driving after he pulled over to check his brakes after coming off Berthoud Pass. She focused on his actions well before the fatal crash, including witness testimony that he was driving recklessly in the hours beforehand.
Aguilera-Mederos said he saw the first two signs for the truck ramp — at 1 1/2 miles and 3/4 miles before the ramp — but said he did not see the last two signs for the ramp. He testified that he had not lost his brakes until after he’d passed the first two signs for the ramp. He added that he had always seen runaway truck ramps that go uphill, not downhill like the ramp he passed on I-70 heading toward Denver.
He testified that he believed his brakes were in working order after he stopped at Berthoud Pass and called his boss and another trucker for advice.
“If the brakes were working fine, why did you call two different people to help you?” Wildeman asked.
“Because they were two people who had much more experience than me,” Aguilera-Mederos said. “That’s not wrong.”
Some of Aguilera-Mederos’ testimony contradicted testimony from other witnesses. Wildeman kept a list of the contradictions on a large piece of paper pinned to an easel beside her throughout his hours-long testimony.
“There were several people who took the stand and told you they saw your brakes smoking, right?” she asked him.
“What I am trying to tell you is that I never saw that and I never saw the brakes smoking,” he said. “I was paying attention to many things. I never saw them smoking.”
The trial, which is in its third week, will continue Friday with closing arguments before the case goes to the jury.
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