A deadly 28-vehicle pileup on Interstate 70 near Lakewood, Colorado, led to a 110-year prison sentence, unprecedented public backlash and a rare commutation by the governor of Colorado.
Let’s take a look at what happened and how victims and their families can seek justice in civil court after a Colorado truck accident.
The Lakewood semi-truck accident
On April 25, 2019, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was driving a semi-truck carrying lumber down a mountainous stretch of I-70 in Lakewood when his brakes failed.
As Rogel approached the Colorado Mills Parkway traveling 85 mph, he saw that traffic had come to a standstill because of another accident. Rogel decided to steer his truck onto the right shoulder to avoid colliding with traffic but quickly realized that another tractor-trailer was parked on the shoulder.
With no other option, Rogel braced for impact.
“I thought, ‘Dear God, don’t let anything bad happen,’” Rogel said. “I closed my eyes and I hugged the wheel.”
Upon impact, lumber from Rogel’s truck shot across the highway and caught fire. Several cars exploded. The temperatures on the highway's surface reached 2,500 degrees.
“There were just explosions everywhere and two-by-fours flying and people running,” a witness recalled.
In all, 4 people died, and many more were injured in the crash.
All 4 victims were Coloradans:
- Doyle Harrison, 61, of Hudson
- William Bailey, 67, of Arvada
- Miguel Angel Lamas Arrellano, 24, of Denver
- Stanley Politano, 69, of Arvada
The Houston-based trucking company that Rogel worked for at the time of the crash, Castellano 03 Trucking LLC, has received numerous safety violations over the past 2 years, including violations for issues with brakes and hiring drivers who could not read English sufficiently to understand highway traffic signs.
Rogel was arrested on April 26, 2019, and charged with 4 counts of vehicular homicide, 6 counts of 1st-degree assault and 4 counts of careless driving causing death, among other charges.
Rogel’s trial began on September 28, 2021, in Jefferson County, Colorado.
During the 3-day trial, prosecutors argued that Rogel could have taken steps to prevent the crash, including using a runaway truck ramp located several miles before the crash site. The prosecution also claimed that Rogel noticed his brakes were smoking and stopped to check them at Berthoud Pass (30 miles from the crash site) but made the decision to continue driving.
Rogel’s attorney argued that Rogel didn’t know his brakes were smoking and only discovered that his brakes had failed after he passed the runaway truck ramp. Rogel’s attorney also pointed out that Rogel had a clean driving record, no criminal record, and passed all of the drug and alcohol tests that were administered.
A sobbing Rogel took the stand to testify.
“I feel very badly,” Rogel said when discussing the victims. “I wish that it had been me.”
The verdict and public backlash
On October 25, 2021, a jury found Rogel guilty of 4 counts of vehicular homicide, 6 counts of 1st-degree assault, 10 counts of attempted 1st-degree assault, 4 counts of careless driving causing death, 2 counts of vehicular assault and 1 count of reckless driving.
Judge Bruce Jones was required by Colorado’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws to sentence Rogel to 110 years in prison.
Colorado’s mandatory minimums were established in the 1990s as a response to rising crime rates and concerns that sentences for the same crimes varied dramatically depending on the judge.
The 110-year sentence given to Rogel—which is twice that received by some of Colorado’s most notorious murderers—sparked widespread outrage across the country.
More than 5 million people signed a petition on Change.org asking Colorado Governor Jared Polis to commute (reduce) the Colorado truck driver’s sentence.
Among those outraged by the sentence was popular American media personality Kim Kardashian, who took to Twitter to comment on the case:
"He was not drunk or under the influence, his brakes on the semi tractor-trailer failed. Another shocking and unfair part of this case is that the judge didn’t want to sentence him to such a lengthy sentence. However, because of the mandatory minimums in Colorado, his hands were tied. Mandatory minimums take away judicial discretion and need to end."
The public outcry prompted First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King, whose office prosecuted the case, to request that Judge Bruce Jones reconsider Rogel’s sentence.
Colorado’s mandatory sentencing law allows the trial judge to reduce the sentence within 91 days of the defendant’s commitment to the Department of Corrections if there are “unusual and extenuating circumstances.”
Colorado Governor Polis commutes Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence
Before Judge Bruce Jones had a chance to reduce Rogel’s sentence at the resentencing hearing, Governor Polis announced that he was commuting the sentence from 110 years to 10 years.
“There is an urgency to remedy this unjust sentence and restore confidence in the uniformity and fairness of our criminal justice system, and consequently I have chosen to commute [Rogel’s] sentence now,” Governor Polis said in a statement.
How victims and their families can seek justice through the civil court system after a truck accident
If you’re the victim of a truck accident, it’s important to recognize that a criminal proceeding is different from a civil proceeding. A criminal proceeding is brought by the government and aimed at punishing the wrongdoer (typically with jail time), whereas a civil lawsuit is brought by the victim or their family and aimed at compensating the victim or their family for the physical, emotional and financial harm done to them.
Victims of truck accidents and their families can file a civil lawsuit regardless of whether or not the at-fault party is charged or convicted of a crime. This is because the standard of proof required in a criminal proceeding is higher than the standard required in a civil proceeding.
If you or a loved one was injured in a truck accident, it’s important to talk to a Colorado personal injury attorney to discuss your legal options.