Trucker Andrew Bokelman shuffled into a courtroom filled with uniformed state police troopers Wednesday to face felony charges in a fiery crash last spring on the Tri-State Tollway that killed Trooper James Sauter.
A murmur went through the gallery as Bokelman entered, his face seeming more youthful than his 26 years.
"He's just a kid," one trooper whispered to no one in particular as he looked at Bokelman standing beside two sheriff's deputies.
The Wisconsin trucker faces up to three years in prison on charges related to driving while fatigued and violating federal regulations limiting the number of hours commercial drivers can stay on the road without taking a mandatory break.
The possible sentence didn't seem like enough to Rob Cowan, Sauter's father-in-law and the only member of Sauter's family who attended the hearing.
"This guy is going to walk because he fell asleep and that's an accident?" Cowan said Wednesday afternoon as he sat in the living room of the home Sauter shared with Cowan's daughter, Elizabeth.
"He had choices to make. He made the wrong choices."
Prosecutors said Bokelman was two hours into an eight-hour trip from Waukesha, Wis., to Louisville, Ky., when he began to nod off at the wheel and his semitrailer veered onto the left shoulder of southbound Interstate 294 near Northbrook around 11 p.m. March 28.
He woke up and saw smoke and flames outside his cab and the front of his rig smashed into the back of Sauter's squad car, prosecutors said. Bokelman told authorities he leapt from the cab and tried to pull Sauter out of the burning car, taking out a pocketknife in an attempt to saw through the trooper's seat belt. A "fireball" knocked him back, prosecutors said.
Sauter, 28, a decorated trooper who had recently transferred back to road duty from a stint as a pilot for the state police, died at the scene. Another trucker who witnessed the crash said he saw no brake lights on Bokelman's rig as he plowed into Sauter's car, driving the Crown Victoria more than 500 feet along the median before skidding to a stop, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Bokelman has cooperated with the investigation, and they did not dispute his version of what happened.
Bokelman had received his commercial driver's license only about six months before the crash. He has not worked since the collision, said his attorney, David Studenroth.
"It's a horrible tragedy, and everyone feels horrible about what happened to Trooper Sauter, including Andrew," Studenroth said.
Bokelman did not look at the rows of uniformed state troopers during the brief hearing. Judge Marguerite Quinn set his bond at $125,000.
A spokesman for United Van Lines, the company for which Bokelman worked, said in an email that the company was "deeply saddened" and that Bokelman's alleged conduct "is not representative of the standards of performance to which we hold our professional drivers every single day." He declined further comment, citing "the prospect of litigation."
Bokelman told investigators he had started his shift around 6 a.m., some 18 hours before the crash. He told investigators he had planned to stop to rest at a truck stop shortly before the crash.
To prevent fatigue, federal law requires commercial drivers to take a 10-hour break after they have worked 14 consecutive hours, and they are to drive no more than 11 hours during that period. Prosecutors also allege that Bokelman falsified entries in his hours log. There were no drugs or alcohol in Bokelman's system at the time of the crash, prosecutors said.
"I don't think that three years is long enough, especially when I see signs on the highway that say, 'Hit a worker, get 14 years in prison,'" said Sauter's father, Donald, when reached by phone after the hearing. "My son was doing his work. What does that sentence say about the work troopers do?"
The day that James Sauter died, his wife, Elizabeth, had learned she was hired for a new teaching job in Deerfield, her father said. Sauter presented his wife with flowers and balloons, and they celebrated before he left for work.
"He kissed her goodbye and was on his way to work," said Cowan, a retired teacher and Deerfield resident. That was the last time they saw each other, Cowan said.
Just before 1:30 the next morning, a law enforcement officer and a priest rang the doorbell and told her that her husband had died, he said.
"She says that … the Bible says to forgive, but she's finding it very difficult," Cowan said.
From statements at the hearing, Cowan learned that Bokelman had lost his job after the crash and lives with his ailing parents in rural Lomira, Wis.
"I don't want to hear that," said Cowan. "I don't want to feel sorry for him."
Reached Wednesday night, Elizabeth Sauter told a reporter: "I'm just upset and still trying to process my feelings about it."
Bokelman's mother, father and brother were at the hearing Wednesday and walked out of the courthouse with him after he posted bond.
Cowan is upset that prosecutors could not charge Bokelman with murder or even manslaughter. Even if Bokelman is found guilty of several felonies, Cowan believes he will serve little time in jail.
"It's heart-wrenching," said Cowan, describing the Sauter and Cowan families as devastated. "I am just awe-struck at the justice system.
"This was a tragic thing that happened. It's disrupted a lot of lives and is not going to have a happy outcome."
Sauter and his wife were just starting their lives together, her father said. The couple met through a Christian website and were married Oct. 10, 2010. Sauter grew up in Chicago Ridge, and the couple lived in a south suburban apartment before buying their house in Vernon Hills last year.
A licensed pilot, Sauter had served a brief stint in the state police's aviation division. Shortly before the crash he had transferred back to road patrol, a job he felt gave him more opportunity to help people, numerous colleagues said at memorial services for the trooper.
Sauter had earned his first commendation before he was even sworn in, receiving a Lifesaving Medal after he tended to a badly injured motorcycle crash victim he spotted on his way to classes at the state police academy in 2008.
Cowan would like to know whether Bokelman's employer, United Van Lines, will take any responsibility.
"Somebody's got to be accountable other than him," said Cowan, who questioned how Bokelman was able to change records and drive without enough sleep. "It's not about money."
He would like to see a law, named after his son-in-law, that "if you kill someone because of your negligence, it's not manslaughter, it's murder," Cowan said.
"He didn't have to drive that truck. … That's not an accident because of your neglect. You are knowingly putting someone in harm's way. It's not right."
Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib contributed.