Slezak receives 20 years in prison for deadly 2012 accident
Josef Slezak was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment yesterday for his role in an accident that took the lives of an entire family on Interstate 80 in 2012.
Family members of the victims and Slezak supporters were both present in Cheyenne County Court as Judge Derek Weimer sentenced the man on four counts of motor vehicle homicide due to recklessness and one count of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child.
Slezak was ordered to serve 60 months in prison for each of the first four counts of motor vehicle homicide, Class IIIa felonies, to be served consecutively. He received no more than 60 months and no less than 20 months to be served concurrently for the fifth count, which is a Class IV felony.
“I want to express my apologies to the family for the pain I caused them for my not being careful and I’m awfully sorry for that,” Slezak said through an interpreter before sentencing.
Slezak 37, of Rivergrove, Ill. pled no contest last month to all charges against him.
On Sept. 9, 2012 Slezak was driving a commercial tractor trailer on Interstate 80 in Cheyenne County. A wreck had stopped traffic on that roadway near mile marker 40. Others already stopped at the crash sight claimed that they saw emergency flasher lights about a half mile before reaching the site, indicating that drivers had plenty of time to stop. Those stopped on the highway saw Slezak approaching at a high rate of speed and attempted to contact him via radio to tell him to slow down.
The truck Slezak was driving smashed into the back of a Ford Mustang, propelling that vehicle into the Toyota Corolla in front of it. This in turn pushed the Corolla forward and lodged it underneath another semi. This resulted in a fire that consumed both vehicles.
The Mustang was occupied by Christopher Schmidt, 30, while in the Corolla were his wife Diana Schmidt, 28, and their two children Samuel Schmidt, 3 and Connor Schmidt, 2. Diana was approximately 30 weeks pregnant with an unborn child named Ethan.
Autopsies determined that the entire Schmidt family died as a result of blunt force trauma received during the crash.
Slezak was not injured in the impact and told a deputy on scene that he didn’t see anything before the crash. Slezak reportedly claimed that he left his truck because he had heard a crash. An accident reconstructionist with the Nebraska State Patrol determined, after examining the scene, that there were no skid marks indicating that Slezak attempted to stop or slow down before hitting the Mustang.
The state determined that Slezak unintentionally caused the deaths of all those in the wreck while driving in a sleep deprived state with disregard for the safety of others.
Slezak picked up cargo on Sept. 8, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wis. He arrived late for pick up and left Milwaukee at around 3 p.m. on that day. He wrecked in Cheyenne County at 5:19 a.m. on Sept 9. He had traveled around 900 miles in this time frame, apparently without stopping to rest.
Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub represented the state at the sentencing while Kelly Breen represented Slezak.
An interpreter was present in the courtroom because Slezak, a native of the Czech Republic is not fluent in English.
Slezak sacrificed safety to make up time, Schaub told the court. He ignored safety regulations while making a nearly non-stop trip from Wisconsin to Western Nebraska in a short period of time.
Witnesses saw Slezak’s truck weaving in and out of lanes before it crashed into other vehicles already stopped on Interstate 80. Schaub urged the judge to consider the damage this tragedy has had on those who knew the victims.
“Their lives are gonna be forever, forever affected,” Schaub said.
He praised the efforts of law enforcement and first responders to the crash scene. What those workers saw at the crash site will have a lasting impact on them as well, Schaub claimed.
Schaub became audibly emotional when speaking about the family’s seemingly bright future which was cut short.
“They were all looking forward to sharing their lives with Ethan,” Schaub said.
The defense claimed that the act was unintentional, and the state agreed. Yet the state insisted intention did not lessen the severity of the act or the impact on the family’s loved ones.
“I don’t want the impression to be that sleep is an on/off switch,” Schaub said.
There are warning signs before a person falls asleep at the wheel, which must have occurred to Slezak and which he chose to ignore, Schaub said. Anyone who falls asleep at the wheel does so willingly or because of exhaustion, Schaub added.
“He didn’t have to violate the rules, he didn’t have to put safety at risk,” Schaub said.
Truck drivers carry even more responsibility for the lives of others on the road than anyone else because they drive vehicles weighing thousands of pounds that can cause more damage than smaller cars.
“As a result, people are dead,” Schaub said.
The state asked the judge to focus on the circumstances surrounding the accident and that a sentence lesser than incarceration would take away from the seriousness of Slezak’s actions.
Breen acknowledged that this accident resulted in the deaths of five people of outstanding character and ambition.
“It was all taken from them,” Breen said.
He accused the first driver who cause the initial accident that led to the backup on Interstate 80 of willful recklessness and said that the first driver was also at fault.
Breen testified to the changing character of the section of road where the crash occurred. A truck driver has no more responsibility than any other driver on the road, because anyone can cause a deadly wreck due to inattention, Breen said.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s the responsibility of every driver,” Breen said.
National statistics say that only drunk driving and texting while driving cause more wrecks than sleep deprivation, Breen pointed out.
“I can tell you, I’ve never had a client like Josef Slezak,” he said. “His expression of remorse, I think it’s genuine.”
Slezak has reportedly had a hard time coming to terms with what he’s done.
“It’s unfathomable for him,” Breen said. “He knows it’s too early to ask for forgiveness.”
Breen praised his client’s character. Slezak entered into a plea agreement, knowing that he might receive up to 20 years imprisonment. He has no criminal history in the Czech Republic or in the United States. Furthermore, Breen claimed the defendant has always been there for his parents, his young son and was a decorated military man in his home country.
“It’s a terrible tragedy and I know the court has to treat this seriously,” Breen said.
Slezak did not ask for probation or time served, but for an indeterminate sentence so he would have the chance to exhibit his true remorse and, in turn, receive a shortened sentence.
Breen asked for less than half of the maximum aggregate sentence for his client and assured that it wouldn’t take away from the seriousness of the crime.
“I’m hoping that this case serves as a warning to people,” Breen said.
This accident should be an example to others to use more caution, Breen added.
Whenever anyone gets behind the wheel of a vehicle, they are taking the lives of all others on the road into their hands, Weimer said.
“We owe one another our best effort and greatest attention,” he said.
There was another wreck which initially caused the backup, but drivers have to account for things that happen on the road in front of them and take action to avoid them, Weimer added.
“We have an obligation to maintain control over the vehicles we’re operating,” he said.
Slezak was sentenced to 60 months for each of the first four counts of motor vehicle homicide, to be served consecutively. He received a sentence of no more than 60 months and no less than 20 months to be served concurrently for the fifth count of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child. Slezak has already served 403 days. This means that Slezak will be eligible for parole in 10 years if he is given credit for all time served.
Douglas Peirce, a former Sidney pastor who now works in Cheyenne, Wyo. attended the sentencing to support Slezak. Peirce has been dealing with inmates for more than 40 years.
“I’ve never seen anyone as remorseful as Mr. Slezak,” Peirce said.
Peirce thought the sentence was fair, although he also opined that parole would have been a good choice as well, considering Slezak’s former military career and his immense regret, Peirce added.
“He’ll be out in 10 years,” Peirce said. “He’ll be an exemplary inmate.”
Peirce was praying for probation or for deportation, he said. This would allow Slezak to serve his sentence in the Czech Republic so his family, including his five year old son could visit him.
“I feel for the family certainly, you can’t replace a life,” Peirce said.
Jim Chalat, who is representing the family of the victims in civil action related to this case said the family was pleased with the sentence.
“It’s an appropriate sentence under the circumstances,” Chalat said.
The civil case is currently moving forward in Omaha district court. The family of the victims is suing the owners and operators of the first vehicle involved in the initial wreck and the owners and operators of the second vehicle both which contributed to the stopped traffic on Interstate 80. They are also suing Slezak.
“We’re seeking significant damages,” Chalat said.
Slezak cried openly in court last month as the charges against him were read, before pleading no contest.
“I am so sorry,” Slezak said through an interpreter yesterday. “I am so sorry.”