Rogel Aguilera-Mederos cried as he testified in his own defense Thursday, telling a Jefferson County jury how he lost control of the tractor-trailer he was driving on Interstate 70 in April 2019 and crashed in traffic stopped, killing four people.
Aguilera-Mederos, 25, frequently stopped to regain his composure as he described how he intended to drive his truck at high speed on the shoulder of the highway until the steep terrain leveled out and he could slow down – his brakes weren’t working.
But that plan became impossible, he told the jury, when another 18-wheeled vehicle was parked on 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 trailer of the parked truck to slow down, then tried to walk towards what he described as a gap between the truck parked and traffic stopped on the freeway.
“But once I touched it, I was unable to control anything,” he said, his voice breaking. “I thought, ‘Dear God, don’t let nothing bad happen.’ Upon impact, I closed my eyes and tightened the steering wheel.
Aguilera-Mederos is charged with more than 40 counts in connection with the accident, including homicide and driving and assault. The flaming pile-up of 28 vehicles 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 who died, Aguilera-Mederos put his head in his arm and cried.
“I feel very bad, I would have liked it to be me,” he testified.
The fatal trip was his first time driving a truck through the mountains, he said, although he had driven his brother, a truck driver, on similar terrain in the past.
During cross-examination, Deputy Prosecutor Kayla Wildeman focused on the inconsistencies between Aguilera-Mederos’ testimony and what he had told police in an initial interview, including what he had told the investigators he had previously led in the mountains of Colorado.
Aguilera-Mederos said he misunderstood the police officers’ questions.
“When I say mountain, I’m referring to a small hill, and I’m talking about dangerous hills going down,” he said. “… That’s why I said to the officer – if he asked me (about) the mountains, I took it as a little hill. That’s why I said yes. If he had said the note, then I would have said no.
Wildeman also asked Aguilera-Mederos why he hadn’t taken a runaway truck ramp that he passed after losing his brakes, and asked him to explain why he continued to drive after s ” be stopped to check your brakes after exiting the Col de Berthoud. She focused on his actions long before the fatal crash, including testimony from a witness that he had been driving recklessly in the previous hours.
Aguilera-Mederos said he saw the first two signs for the truck ramp – 1.5 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 did not lose his brakes until he passed the first two ramp signs. He added that he had always seen ramps of fleeing trucks going up, and not descents like the ramp he passed on I-70 towards Denver.
He testified that he believed his brakes were working well after stopping at Col Berthoud and calling his boss and another trucker for advice.
“If the brakes were working well, why did you call two different people to help you? Wildeman asked.
“Because they were two people who had a lot more experience than me,” said Aguilera-Mederos. “It’s not false.”
Some of Aguilera-Mederos’ testimonies contradicted the testimony of other witnesses. Wildeman kept a list of contradictions on a large piece of paper pinned to an easel next to her throughout her hour-long testimony.
“There were a number of people who took the helm and told you they saw your brakes smoke, right? She asked him.
“What I’m trying to tell you is, I’ve never seen this and I’ve never seen the brakes smoke,” he said. “I was paying attention to a lot of things. I never saw them smoke.
The trial, which is in its third week, will continue on Friday with oral argument before the case goes to the jury.