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Trucker charged in crash that killed state trooper on Tri-State

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Updated: December 15, 2013 11:39AM

Wisconsin truck driver Andrew Bokelman had been on the road about two hours, pulling a 9,000-pound trailer of household goods to Kentucky when tragedy struck late last March.

Bokelman, 26, had already worked a 12-hour shift when he dozed off behind the wheel on the Tri-State Tollway near Glenview about 11 p.m. on March 28, prosecutors said.

When he awoke, his truck was on fire and he had slammed into Illinois State Trooper James Sauter’s patrol car and pushed it 540 feet along a center median, prosecutors said.

Sauter, 28, died at the scene from injuries in the crash. On Wednesday, Bokelman, of Lomira, Wis., was charged with three felonies in Cook County court for violating federal safety laws meant to keep tired truck drivers off the road. He faces one to three years in prison for each count.

Judge Marguerite A. Quinn set bond at $125,000. Bokelman later posted the $12,500 required to be released from custody and headed back to Wisconsin, his attorney said.

“At the end of the day it’s a tragedy for everybody involved,” Capt. Joseph Perez of the Illinois State Police said after the hearing in Skokie, which was packed with more than 50 troopers. “It’s a tragedy for Trooper Sauter, it’s a tragedy for his family and it’s a tragedy for the Bokelman family.”

Bokelman’s mother, father and brother attended the hearing but declined to comment.

After the crash, the driver’s side door of Bokelman truck was wedged against the median, Assistant State’s Attorney Diann Sheridan said in court.

So he climbed out the passenger side and vainly tried to rescue Sauter, who had been parked on the left shoulder of the tollway with his lights off just before the crash, Sheridan said.

Using a pocketknife, Bokelman cut the seat belt off the trooper and tried to drag him out of the wreckage by the shoulders. But a fireball exploded, knocking Bokelman back, Sheridan said.

When he was later questioned, his hair and nostrils had been singed by the flames, Sheridan said in court.

“From the beginning — for both sides — everybody has had nothing but heartfelt sympathy for Trooper Sauter, his wife and his family,” said David Studenroth, Bokelman’s lawyer, noting that his client tested negative for drugs or alcohol.

State Police conducted a lengthy investigation, but there was not enough evidence to charge Bokelman with Sauter’s death, said Perez, adding that he thought the charges against Bokelman were appropriate.

Prosecutors and Bokelman’s defense attorney said he cooperated fully with the investigation.

Under the safety rules, Bokelman was charged with driving after a work period of 14 consecutive hours without taking 10 consecutive hours off; operating a commercial vehicle while fatigued, and falsely reporting himself as eligible to drive when he was not, according to prosecutors.

Bokelman’s truck also was traveling in the left lane of the expressway, a witness told police, even though semitrailers are supposed to stay in the right two lanes, according to authorities. Bokelman was charged with improper lane usage the day of the crash, but the ticket was dismissed on April 15.

The Chicago Sun-Times first disclosed in June that federal investigators found that Bokelman had been working more than 14 hours before the crash. Bokelman, who investigators said worked for United Van Lines agent Barrett Moving and Storage, was fined $2,500 as recommended.

United Van Lines was fined $5,500, but records show its recommended fine was twice that — $11,000. A spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said United Van Lines’ fine was capped at $5,500 per policy because Bokelman broke the rule once in seven days.

Investigators said Bokelman worked for Barrett from 6:31 a.m. until 6:32 p.m. the day of the crash. A federal spokesman said Bokelman had been loading and unloading trucks “all day long.” Then, between 7:14 p.m. and 7:34 p.m., the trailer later involved in the crash was moved within Waukesha, Wis., according to GPS reports.

The trailer began to travel again at 8:49 p.m., investigators wrote, and didn’t stop until 11:03 p.m., when it crashed in Cook County. The records say Bokelman was behind the wheel.

United Van Lines issued a statement this summer that it was fully cooperating with authorities and was “deeply saddened by the loss of Trooper Sauter.” An attorney working on United’s behalf said in June the company didn’t know about Bokelman’s work hours.

He said Bokelman didn’t begin to operate under United Van Lines’ interstate authority until 8:49 p.m., and he said the company didn’t dispatch him. But a federal spokesman said the company was fined because Bokelman broke the rule while working for United.

Records show Bokelman was hired in December with no previous truck-driving experience except for a Class A Commercial Truck Driving program he finished in fall 2012. He was given entry-level driver training and a road test after he was hired, an investigator wrote.

Sauter had been a trooper since 2008 and earned a lifesaving medal as a cadet for coming to the aid of a female motorcycle crash victim that year.

“No fine or jail time can begin to replace the courage and honor of this exceptional trooper, son and husband,” Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said in a statement. “The men and women of the Illinois State Police will never forget James’ unselfish sacrifice and his service to this agency and we will always honor his legacy.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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