Trucker’s lawyer denies sleepiness was factor in fatal crash
BY BRIAN SLODYSKO AND JON SEIDEL Staff Reporters January 29, 2014 8:55AM
Renato V. Velasquez, 46, of Hanover Park, was charged in the fiery crash on Interstate 88, near Aurora, Monday night that killed a tollway worker and injured a state trooper. | mughot provided by Illinois State Police
Updated: March 3, 2014 3:49PM
A truck driver’s lawyer denies his client was sleepy behind the wheel despite working 37 hours straight before Monday’s fiery crash that killed an Illinois Tollway worker and critically injured a state trooper.
Steven Goldman said Renato V. Velasquez’s vision was blocked by another semi in front of him on Interstate 88 in Aurora near Eola Road. By the time that semi merged out of the way, Goldman said, it was too late for Velasquez to do the same.
“It’s devastating to him as a person for this to happen,” Goldman said. “Whether criminal or not, that’s to be decided.”
A DuPage County judge ordered Velasquez, 46, held Wednesday in lieu of $150,000 bail.
Goldman, who expected his client to post bail Wednesday night, said Velasquez’s blood-alcohol test indicated he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash that killed Vincent Petrella and seriously wounded Douglas J. Balder.
Velasquez has been charged with operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired or fatigued, making a false report of record and duty status, and driving beyond the 14- and 11-hour rules — all felonies.
Court records show Velasquez has collected a small handful of traffic tickets over the years for infractions like speeding. He pleaded guilty to driving with an obstructed windshield after an accident in March 2012 in which he was driving a Nissan Altima, court records show.
He faced federal charges in January 2001 after allegedly trying to sell cocaine to an undercover officer in his hometown of Hanover Park. After that arrest, records show he told officers he had marijuana hidden in the ceiling of his garage.
Police later found 1.165 kilograms of marijuana there, records show.
Velasquez eventually pleaded guilty, records show, and he was sentenced in April 2002 to 50 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release. But state officials said such a conviction is not a barrier to receiving a commercial driver’s license in Illinois.
Before Monday’s crash leading to his latest arrest, prosecutors said Velasquez started his shift around 8 a.m. Sunday. They said he loaded his truck in preparation for an afternoon run to Nebraska, DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said after the court hearing.
On the return trip, the truck driver stopped to pick up cargo in Iowa before continuing on his journey home, Berlin alleged.
Velasquez, who said in court he takes home about $100,000 a year, told authorities he slept a little over three hours during the whole trip, Berlin said.
“That’s what’s alleged. I don’t know if that’s true,” said Goldman, who described Velasquez as a “loving father and a loving husband.”
“He’s devastated. He’s devastated this happened,” Goldman said of his client. “It was an unfortunate and tragic accident.”
Police said Velasquez was working for DND International Inc. of Naperville. Representatives of the company couldn’t be reached for comment.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show random inspections of DND International’s drivers in the last two years ended with the driver being placed out of service 9.7 percent of the time. The national average is 5.51 percent.
Meanwhile, the company’s vehicles were placed out of service after random inspections 20.2 percent of the time, on par with the national average of 20.72 percent.
The FMCSA records show DND International had a “satisfactory” rating as of July 2011.
Balder, 38, was helping Petrella, 39, with a broken-down semitrailer truck about 9:45 p.m. Monday in the right-hand lane and shoulder on the eastbound side of I-88, according to authorities. State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said the lights on Balder’s squad car were activated Monday, and prosecutors said a tollway safety truck with a large flashing arrow sign was on the scene to direct drivers away from the stalled vehicle when Velasquez’s truck hit them.
Balder was taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, officials said.
Prosecutors said Balder suffered broken ribs, a broken shoulder and third-degree burns over 15 percent of his body. The trooper, who was in his car at the time of the crash, was able to climb to safety. Petrella was pronounced dead at the scene, the first Illinois Tollway employee to be killed on the job since 2003.
The 13-year veteran of the tollway, who began his career there as a toll collector in 2001, became an equipment operator laborer in 2005. Among his responsibilities was to work with State Police and other emergency personnel to deal with incidents on the highway, tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said.
Petrella’s sister, Maria, said she grew up with her brother on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood. That’s where she said he got one of his first jobs putting tags on cars at a valet service. She said her brother moved to northwest suburban Wheeling about seven years ago and lived there with his wife and two children: a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy.
Heidi Miller, Balder’s former sister-in-law, said Balder and his wife “are amazing people” who kept in touch with her son for years.
Navy records show Balder served in Africa from October 2012 until June 2013.
“He’s a remarkable man,” Miller said.
Contributing: Hannah Lutz