WOODLAND — Robert and Linda Taylor of Oregon were en route to visit family. So was La’nessa Demillo, just 10 days shy of her third birthday, as she rode with her mother and great-grandfather in a car bound for Riverside. Arturo and Guadalupe Carrera headed home to Bellflower after a family trip to Oregon.
Though none hailed from Yolo County, their worlds collided in Woodland on Aug. 8, 2011, when a fiery six-car crash on Interstate 5 left the Taylors and La’nessa dead and seven others with injuries, including disfiguring burns to Guadalupe Carrera.
“The cause of all the carnage on that day … was from one man, and one man only,” Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Susz said Wednesday during opening statements in the trial of Gubani Roderico Rosales Quinteros, who is accused of causing the collision with reckless driving that summer afternoon.
The 42-year-old Elk Grove resident has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, each of which carries five enhancements alleging infliction of great bodily injury.
Quinteros’ attorney, Chief Deputy Public Defender Allison Zuvela, says the 12:43 p.m. crash was a tragic accident and nothing more, but also hinted that a poorly planned freeway construction zone may have played a role.
The work took place near the southbound lanes, where drivers approaching County Road 102 discovered the right lane had been closed. According to Susz, three signs along the roadway warned of the upcoming closure, and traffic had slowed or stopped as motorists approached the construction zone.
Quinteros, driving a box truck to the Sacramento area after delivering packages to post offices between Woodland and Shasta County, failed to see the warning signs and hit the gridlock at an estimated 70 mph without attempting to brake or otherwise avoid a crash, Susz told the seven-man, five-woman jury.
“He was driving a 26,000-pound deadly weapon,” Susz said. The truck first hit the Taylors’ Chevy Tahoe, killing the couple instantly and causing both vehicles to burst into flames. The prosecutor said the mangled wreckage then became a “battering ram” that struck four more cars: a Jeep Wrangler, an Acura, a Ford Expedition and a Ford van.
All but the van also caught fire, sending thick plumes of black smoke into sky and spreading to the vegetation in the freeway’s center median.
Initially rendered unconscious, Tedd Laycock, who was driving the Acura, was able to get out of the car, as was his granddaughter Brianna Demillo, 21. But both watched in horror as flames engulfed the vehicle before they could pull the lifeless La’nessa out of her car seat, Susz said.
Earlier, Susz had played a recording of a 911 call from the scene in which Demillo is heard screaming hysterically in the background. In the courtroom, two women held one another as they listened to the frantic cries.
Fire also consumed the Jeep and the Expedition, leaving Guadalupe Carrera, a passenger in the Ford, with burns to the right side of her body, Susz said. Only the Ford van, carrying a driver and six teens, escaped major damage.
Zuvela, the defense attorney, noted that her client also was among the injured, having been pulled by passersby from the cab of his burning truck.
“There’s no question that a horrible, horrible accident happened in August of 2011,” she said. But Quinteros, who wasn’t on his cell phone, under the influence or driving above the freeway’s posted speed limit, isn’t the one to blame, she added.
Zuvela told the jury that multiple witnesses, including some who were injured in the crash, will testify that the construction signs weren’t clearly visible to motorists that day, and that some will recall having to brake suddenly to avoid slowing cars as they approached the “bizarre and abrupt” lane closure.
“What you’re going to hear about is a horrible accident — an accident,” Zuvela said.
Quinteros was not charged in the case until July 2012, a delay Susz said stemmed from the defendant using another man’s name on the driver’s license and Social Security card he presented to California Highway Patrol officers investigating the fatal crash.
The alleged identity theft, which prosecutors say dates back to 1996, resulted in 37 additional charges against Quinteros, though all but four were severed from the current trial.
Wednesday’s first witness, CHP Officer Jose Rodriguez, said smoke from the crash was visible from his office off County Road 102 in Woodland, where he was working when initial reports of the collision came in.
He arrived on scene to find vehicles “fully engulfed” in both the center divide as well as the southbound lanes. A man and a woman stood near one of the burning cars.
“She was screaming, ‘My baby, my baby’s inside — please help me!’ ” Rodriguez testified. “I had to restrain her, because she wanted to run back inside (the car) and get the baby.”
Testimony continued today in Judge Stephen Mock’s courtroom.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene