The trial for a New Jersey man who was driving a tractor-trailer involved in a 2019 crash that killed the president of local grocery store chain and a 7-year-old boy began Monday in Harford County, with prosecutors arguing the driver made no attempt to stop before causing the wreck.
Carloo Everton Watson, 51, is charged with two counts of gross negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle, two counts of criminal negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle, and four counts of causing serious injury while using a cellphone in connection to the crash and deaths of Andrew Klein and Tripp Johnson.
Klein, 65, of Forest Hill, was the president of Klein’s Family Markets — a division of ShopRite. Johnson was a second grader at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon. Four other people were seriously injured in the multi-vehicle wreck. Klein was on his way to New York for a business trip, and Johnson was on his way to school, prosecutors said.
Around 7 a.m. March 11, 2019, a ShopRite tractor-trailer, driven by Watson, was traveling south on Route 24 in Bel Air when it crashed through a line of traffic stopped at the red light at the intersection with Ring Factory Road, then burst into flames as it came to rest.
In her opening statement Monday, Assistant State’s Attorney Cristin Treaster said Watson could see that red light for 37 seconds before he reached it and not once did he attempt to brake. She said Watson was driving while tired and using his phone, which he should have known to be dangerous from his many years of driving a truck.
“This was not an accident,” she said. “Mr. Watson made a series of decisions.”
Treaster said that the only reason the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office was not pursuing a depraved-heart murder charges against Watson was because he got out his vehicle and started helping people after the crash. Depraved-heart murder means that a person recognizes their actions are dangerous and could be deadly, but continues to act with indifference even if they did not explicitly intend to kill someone.
Defense attorney Brian Thompson acknowledged the significance of the crash in his opening arguments, noting that Klein was a pillar of the community, but said “the enormity of the tragedy cannot turn an accident into a crime.”
Watson, his attorney said, was not speeding and had stopped at red lights prior to the intersection where the crash occurred. Video evidence presented at trial showed Watson was wearing a headset to talk on the phone, Thompson said, and he reiterated that Watson jumped out of his vehicle and cut loose Klein’s driver after the crash, as the vehicle was starting to catch on fire.
The crash caused a pinball-effect that careened cars into each other. The prosecution introduced dozens of pictures of the twisted wreckage into evidence. The back of the Dodge that the 7-year-old Johnson rode in was ripped open, the photos showed. The Toyota Klein died in had gotten wedged under the tractor-trailer, which was itself totaled.
The man driving Klein, Ubaldo Juarez, said the last thing he remembers of that drive was waking up in the hospital. He said he suffered injuries to his head, neck and hip in the crash, which still cause him some pain. He had to dab tears away as he was questioned on the stand.
Megan Fulleylove, Johnson’s mother, was also injured in the wreck. Like Juarez, her memory of the event is jarring; one second she was merging into the left-hand lane of Route 24 and the next she does not remember anything, she testified. The crash severed a nerve in her head, leaving her unable to raise one of her eyebrows, and she suffered a traumatic brain injury, she told the court. Her injuries, not to mention the psychological toll the crash took on her, bother her every day, she said.
Thompson disputed the initially recommended charges offered by Maryland State Police investigator Sgt. Daniel Rumaker’s report on the crash. Rumaker investigated the incident and recommended charges related to causing a death while operating a motor vehicle and using a phone.
Thompson pressed him on why he thought Watson was using a phone while driving the rig. Video footage from a ShopRite in Bel Air showed Watson wearing a Bluetooth device, and the attorneys stipulated that others around the store heard Watson talking into it while he was there.
Phone records indicate that Watson placed a nearly 39-minute call that ended around the time of the crash, which Rumaker said guided his recommended charges. But he had no answer for why he thought Watson was holding a phone and not using the headset.
“So you cannot tell me why you made that decision,” Thompson asked.
“No,” Rumaker replied.
In those 39 minutes, he also received two text messages, neither of which was read, Thompson said.
On redirect, Treaster noted that nobody saw Watson wearing a headset at the scene of the crash.
Rumaker also tested eight of the truck’s 10 brakes, he said, and found all but one aligned as they should. He could not test the other two because they had suffered heavy burn damage.
The truck’s “black box” recording device was damaged in the crash. Normally it records the vehicle’s speed and performance, Master Trooper Nancy Armiger of the state police testified, but Watson’s had not updated recently, and police were not able to connect to it. Likewise, nothing could be recovered from the truck’s cabin.
“There was nothing left of that truck,” she said.
Sgt. Kevin Zarzecki with the MSP’s Crash Team said he found tire marks at the scene, but they were not from Watson’s truck, he said; no dual tire marks were found at the scene.
Watson opted to have his trial before a judge rather than a jury. Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman is hearing the case.
A defense motion to have the trial moved out of Harford County was struck down during a February 2020 court hearing. Thompson had collated and submitted over 100 news articles about the crash to the judge, arguing that the publicity of the trial — and the victim’s profile in the county — were reasonable grounds to move the proceedings somewhere else because of issues selecting an impartial jury. All Harford County judges recused themselves from the proceeding.
Gross negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison with a $5,000 fine, while criminal negligence manslaughter by motor vehicle is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of three years of incarceration with a $5,000 fine.
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Causing serious injury while using a cellphone is a traffic offense that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail with a $5,000 fine.