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Prosecutors: Semi driver in fatal crash worked 36 hours with 3 1/2 hours sleep

Highway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersDrug TraffickingCourts and the JudiciaryIllinois Governor

The semi driver who caused a fiery accident that killed a tollway worker and badly injured a state trooper had been working 36 hours at the time of the crash, a prosecutor said today as bail was set at $150,000.

Renato V. Velasquez, 46, of Hanover Park is charged with several felony driving offenses in the Monday night crash that killed Vincent Petrella, 39, and left State Trooper Douglas J. Balder, 38, hospitalized with third-degree burns and broken ribs and shoulders, according to prosecutors.

Petrella and Balder had stopped along Interstate 88 near Eola Road near Aurora Monday night to assist a semi diver whose rig had broken down, according to state police.

Authorities say Velasquez drove his semi into the state police squad car, pushing it into Petrella's truck and sparking a fiery accident.

Velasquez had been working more than 36 hours and had reported for work around 8 a.m. Sunday, Assistant DuPage County State’s Atty. Bethany Jackson told Judge Thomas Else during a bond hearing. DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said that Velasquez had 3 1/2 hours of sleep during that stretch.

After his trailer was loaded, Velasquez left around 2:30 p.m.  Sunday and drove to Nebraska. He dropped off his load and then picked up another in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and was on his way back to the Chicago area when the accident happened about 9:45 p.m. Monday, Jackson said.

Velasquez told police he did not see the vehicles stopped along the side of the road, but Jackson said the tollway truck and police car both had their emergency flashers activated.

Velasquez attorney Steven Goldman asked for a lower bond.  He noted that Velasquez had submitted to testing and there was no indication of drugs or alcohol.

"It’s a tragic accident,” Goldman said.  “He’s devastated – his whole family is devastated."

Velasquez family members were in court for the bond hearing but declined comment afterward. He  is the father of four children who range in age from 8 to 25, his attorney said.

According to federal court documents, Velasquez was arrested on Jan 9, 2001 and arrested after he tried to sell two kilograms of cocaine to an undercover Palatine police officer in Hanover Park.

He later pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to sell and distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine and agreed to testify against his co-defendant at trial.

On April 26, 2002 he was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Elaine E. Bucklo to 50 months in the United States Bureau of Prisons and served a little less than two years in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. After his release he was sentenced to supervised release for three years.

Goldman said he would seek a reduced bond for Velasquez, who is charged with operating a commercial vehicle while impaired/fatigued, filing a false report of record and duty status, driving more than 14 hours and driving beyond the 11 hour rule.

Petrella, a Wheeling resident who was married with a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, started at the Tollway as a toll collector in 2005. He grew up in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood and had worked since he was a 12-year-old taking valet tickets, said his sister, Maria Petrella.

"He worked a lot, just to make sure his family was provided for," she said. "He was a good man. Too young to go. Too young."

Balder, of Oswego, is a Navy reservist whose June return from a deployment to Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa, was celebrated at a large party with family and friends. He remained in critical but stable condition as of Wednesday, officials said.

"The whole neighborhood turned up. Well-liked man, well-liked family," said Donna Morsovillo, founder of Operation Welcome You Home, the nonprofit that put on the celebration. "He was just so humbled that people would come out like that."

According to a bio printed by Morsovillo's organization last year and cited Tuesday by state police, Balder holds a master's degree and was awarded several military medals during a Navy career that dates to 1994.

Balder's family could not be reached for comment. Neighbors were quick to praise him, noting that before he left for work Monday he had taken time to shovel a neighbor's driveway.

"We've been in prayer for them today," neighbor Lydia Bauer said. "We're just praying that he is healed and restored to his healthy self."

Officials offered praise for Petrella and Balder. Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the state's flags to be flown at half-staff in Petrella's honor.

Tribune reporters Mitch Smith, Peter Nickeas, Carlos Sadovi and freelance reporters Alicia Fabbre and Jack McCarthy contributed.

mitsmith@tribune.com

pnickeas@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Highway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersDrug TraffickingCourts and the JudiciaryIllinois Governor
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