A re-creation of the I-70 crash, according to reports by the Kansas Turnpike Authority
Kenny B. Ford, 58, of Greeley, Colorado, appeared without an attorney Friday morning in Leavenworth County District Court. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail on each count.
The charges were filed Feb. 26, but remained sealed until Friday’s court appearance.
The July 11, 2017, wreck occurred on westbound Interstate 70 near 174th Street. Traffic was backed up due to road construction when, around 2:30 that Tuesday afternoon, Ford’s semi encountered the backup after cresting a hill.
Unable to stop in time, the truck rammed into an SUV driven by 61-year-old Teresa J. Butler of Urbana, Illinois. The force of the impact spun her GMC Terrain toward a retaining wall, killing Butler and her passenger, Karen Lynn Kennedy, 63, of New Palestine, Ill.
Ford’s truck then hit a car driven by 83-year-old Sheldon Cohen. His wife, 79-year-old Virginia Cohen, was with him. The Topeka couple died when their Buick LaCrosse was pushed into a guardrail and wound up in a ditch.
Finally, the truck hit a Ford Taurus. Its driver, Ricardo Mireles, 38, also from Topeka, was killed when his car was pushed underneath another tractor-trailer and caught fire.
Butler and Kennedy both worked in health care and were on their way to Colorado for vacation. The Cohens were retired Washburn University professors, and Mireles was the father of two and an avid sports fan.
The Kansas Highway Patrol spent more than a year investigating the wreck. Afterward the Leavenworth County Attorney’s office spent several more months weighing the evidence and seeking answers to followup questions, County Attorney Todd Thompson said.
Details from that investigation won’t be publicly available until there is some resolution in the case. But by charging him with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, it was a signal that Ford was not impaired at the time of the crash. Rather, the charges state that he should have exercised more care. Highway signs warned motorists that construction work was ahead.
Each count alleged that Ford drove “in a manner which created an unreasonable risk of injury to the person or property of another and which constituted a material deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would observe under the same circumstances.”
Prior to the wreck, Ford had been cited at least twice in Missouri. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to operating a commercial vehicle without proper brakes and in 2010 to failure to register a commercial vehicle in Missouri.
The truck he was driving at the time of the turnpike wreck was owned by a Colorado company, Indian Creek Express.
An attorney representing Butler’s estate told The Star that the families of the five victims agreed to settle with the company and its insurer rather than sue.
That attorney, Chad Beckett of Urbana, Ilinois, said he would be violating a confidentiality agreement if he disclosed the terms of the settlement, but characterized it this way:
“I’ll just say everybody left unhappy,” he said.
Beckett said he hasn’t handled many truck wreck cases and was surprised to learned how little liability insurance trucking companies are required to carry given the potential damage that a truck wreck can cause. Federal records show that Indian Creek Express’ insurance policy then and now pays no more than $1 million per occurrence, no matter how many vehicles are involved.
The minimum liability coverage required under federal law is $750,000 for all but haulers of hazardous material. Despite inflation, that hasn’t changed in 35 years.
“That’s what this case has shown me,” Beckett said. “The coverage is not close to adequate to compensate the families.”
The Kansas Highway Patrol investigated the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board says that most rear-end truck crashes like this one can be mitigated or avoided entirely when trucks are equipped with automatic emergency braking and forward crash warning systems.
But despite its repeated recommendations over the past 20 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has failed to require that technology, The Star reported last fall.
The 2015 Freightliner that Ford was driving was not equipped with those safety mechanisms.