Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison over a 2019 crash that killed four people. Following an outcry over the lengthy sentence, Governor Jared Polis has reduced it to 10 years, Rachel Sharp reports
It’s been more than two years since a fireball traffic accident left four people dead in Colorado, but the tragedy came back into the spotlight in December when the man convicted of causing the crash was told he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, a 26-year-old Cuban immigrant who moved to the US to provide a better life for his family, said the crash unfolded in April 2019 when his brakes failed, sending his truck plowing into dozens of cars and causing a 28-car pile-up.
The truck driver was slapped with 27 charges and sentenced to 110 years in prison on 13 December – thanks to what the judge said was down to Colorado’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.
The lengthy sentence sparked outcry with fellow truckers, a juror in the case, Kim Kardashian and even the prosecutor’s office that led the case against Aguilera-Mederos all calling for it to be lowered.
First, the trucking community rallied round, with drivers posting social media videos in a show of solidarity with Aguilera-Mederos and vowing to boycott driving through the state.
A Change.org petition calling for clemency or for his sentence to be commuted reached more than 5m signatures.
A juror in the case then spoke out to say – while he stood by the conviction – he “cried my eyes out” when he heard the sentence.
The case even drew the attention of Kim Kardashian who posted a series of Instagram stories to her 271 million followers where she called the sentence “shocking and unfair”.
Even the prosecutor’s office that led the case called for a hearing to lower the sentence to between 20 and 30 years.
The mounting pressure appeared to pay off as, on 30 December, Colorado Governor Jared Polis stepped in and commuted Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence from 110 to 10 years.
It was 25 April 2019 when Aguilera-Mederos was driving an 18-wheeler semi-truck loaded with lumber along Interstate 70 in Lakewood, near Denver, Colorado.
Aguilera-Mederos, 23 at the time, was driving the vehicle during rush hour traffic for his job at Houston-based trucking company Castellano 03 Trucking LLC.
The driver said the vehicle lost its braking function as he was driving downhill on the interstate.
Prosecutors said the driver passed several runaway ramps designed to help vehicles which have lost control of their brakes come to a safe stop but failed to use any.
The semi-truck plowed into several vehicles causing a massive pile-up of 24 cars and four semitrailers.
The crash caused a huge fireball explosion that killed four people.
Footage from the scene showed roaring flames and thick smoke billowing into the air from the mass pile-up.
Lakewood Police Spokesman Ty Countryman told reporters at the time it was “one of the worst accidents we’ve had here in Lakewood”.
It took hours for some of the victims’ bodies to be pulled from the wreckage, he said.
Authorities said no alcohol or drugs were involved and Aguilera-Mederos had no prior criminal record.
Four men, all from Colorado, were killed in the blazing inferno while six others were hospitalised with injuries.
The four victims were identified as: Doyle Harrison, 61, from Hudson; William Bailey, 67, from Arvada; Miguel Angel Lamas Arrellano, 24, from Denver; and Stanley Politano, 69, from Arvada.
They were all traveling in separate vehicles along the highway at the time.
Harrison worked as a graphic designer in the planning and zoning department for Jefferson County for more than three decades.
He was driving home from the Jefferson County Administration Building at the time of the crash.
The 61-year-old was remembered as a “loving husband, father, brother and friend” who left behind his wife and three children in an online obituary.
Politano was a married father-of-two sons who was due to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary just nine months after the crash.
He had spent two decades working his way up in the gaming industry and was the executive vice president for casino development company Jacobs Entertainment.
Cathi Politano, his wife of 49 years, said he had called her on his way home from work that night – something he would do every evening – and that they were planning to book their anniversary trip that night.
Cathi Politano told ABC7 his last words to her were: “I love you and I’ll be there in a minute”.
She said she then turned on the news and saw the accident, immediately recognising it as his route home.
Ms Politano said she called her husband back to tell him to take a different route but his phone went straight to voicemail.
“That never happens,” she said.
The following day, she received confirmation that her husband had been killed in the crash.
The charges and conviction
Aguilera-Mederos was arrested at the scene and charged with a trove of charges including vehicular homicide.
In October, he was found guilty of 27 criminal charges including four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault, 10 counts of attempt to commit assault in the first degree–extreme indifference, two counts of vehicular assault- reckless, one count of reckless driving, and four counts of careless driving causing death.
On 13 December, the now-26-year-old was sentenced by Colorado District Court Judge Bruce Jones to 110 years in jail.
The judge said he had “no desire” to sentence the 26-year-old to life in prison but that his hands were tied due to the number of charges the defendant was found guilty of and the rules under state law.
In Colorado, each count should be served consecutively rather than concurrently.
“If I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence,” the judge told the court.
Before the sentence was handed down, Aguilera-Mederos gave an emotional plea for leniency as he said he wished he could swap places with the people killed.
“I know that it has been hard and heartbreaking for everyone involved in this tragedy,” he said.
“Your honour I don’t know why I’m alive. Like for what?
“I ask God too many times why them and not me? Why did I survive that accident?”
Aguilera-Mederos sobbed as he told the court he was “not a criminal” and is “sorry” for the trauma he has caused.
“I respect my family, and I respect myself, I respect the people who believe in me that I’m not a criminal and I respect God,” he sobbed.
His voice broke and his statement became inaudible, before he took a break, before going on.
“I want to say sorry. Sorry for the loss, for the people injured. I know they have trauma, I know, I feel that,” he said.
“But please, don’t be angry with me… I was working hard for a better future for my family.
“I have never thought about hurting anybody in my entire life.”
He added that he takes “responsibility” but that it “was a terrible accident”.
The calls for clemency
Outrage erupted over Aguilera-Mederos’ lengthy sentencing, with an online petition calling for clemency reaching more than 5m signatures and truckers staging a boycott of Colorado in support of their fellow trucker.
Many hit out at the lengthy sentence handed to the driver over an accident compared to the lesser sentences sometimes doled out to people convicted of other crimes, such as rape and murder.
The Change.org petition was first set up in 2019 by Heather Giblee who called for the trucking company to be held responsible rather than Aguilera-Mederos.
But the petition gained traction following the sentencing and began calling for his sentence to be commuted as time served or for Governor Jared Polis to grant him clemency.
“I made this petition because i am a native to Colorado, who believes this man is NOT a criminal and this was purely an accident,” wrote Ms Giblee.
“No, we are not trying to make it seem any less of a tragic accident that it is because yes, lives were lost.
“We are trying to hold the person who needs to be held responsible, responsible. The trucking company has had several inspections since 2017, with several mechanical violations.”
The petition continued: “There are many things Rogel could have done to avoid the courts, but he took responsibility showed up and severely apologized to the victims families.
“Some of the families even offered Forgiveness. Rogel is not a criminal, the company he was working for knew the federal laws that go into truck driving but they failed to follow those laws.
“Rogel has said several times that he wishes he had the courage to crash and take his own life that day, this tragic accident wasn’t done with Intent, it wasnt a criminal act, it was an accident.”
By late December, the petition had reached more than 5m signatures.
A Change.org spokesperson told The Independent that the petition was the fastest growing US petition in the whole of 2021.
The governor’s office released a statement saying it was “aware of this issue” and that the governor and his team “review each clemency application individually”.
Boycotts and protests
Fellow truckers also came out in a show of support for Aguilera-Mederos by vowing to refuse to drive through Colorado, where the crash took place and the Cuban immigrant was convicted.
Dozens of videos were posted on TikTok, Facebook and Twitter reportedly showing lines of trucks whose drivers are boycotting entering the state and the hashtags #NoTrucksToColorado and #justiceforrogel have been trending.
In one Tiktok, @Toro_lag showed clips of trucks with the phrases “No more trucks to Colorado” and “Justice for Rogel”.
Fellow trucker and TikTok user @bigmula7031 posted a video inside his truck telling the camera Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence is “ridiculous”.
“I’m not saying he should be let off scot-free, no,” he said. “But 110 years, that’s ridiculous.”
Another TikTok @ntgi2020 posted a video with the caption: “This truck is no longer going to Colorado. We want justice for Rogel Aguilera. Truckers, he needs our help.”
Despite the calls for justice trending online, Colorado Motor Carriers Association President Greg Fulton told CBS4 he didn’t think the boycott was widespread and had not heard of Colorado truckers joining in.
“The videos look like they are from a different time or period,” he said.
“I would hope that’s not happening, because I think that would be the wrong approach, no matter how you look at this.”
Several in-person protests were also organised in support of the jailed truck driver.
This came as a juror in the case also spoke out to condemn the sentence, saying he “cried my eyes out” about it.
The juror said that, while he found the 26-year-old guilty on 27 charges, he believes the lengthy sentence is “not right” and is “100-fold of what it should have been”.
“There is just something wrong to where a judge cannot intervene in some way and say the way this is written is not right,” he told FOX31.
Prosecutor’s ‘poor taste’ trophy and apparent change of heart
The prosecution in the case was forced to admit it acted in “poor taste” after the prosecutor in the case Kayla Wildeman boasted about the lengthy conviction on social media.
Ms Wildeman had posted a photo on Facebook of a trophy made from a semi-truck brake pad which had been made to celebrate her win in the case.
“Get yourself a trial partner as great as Trevor Moritzky. He turned a brake shoe from a semi-truck into a memento. What a special gift from truly a special person,” she wrote about her fellow prosecutor.
The post drew outrage and has since been deleted.
Colorado’s First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King said in a statement that the social media post “was in very poor taste and does not reflect the values” of her office.
She said she took “immediate action” as soon as she became aware of the post and has addressed the issue “internally”.
The brake pad used in the trophy was not evidence in the case, she added.
Days later, the DA’s office joined calls for the judge to “reconsider” the sentence, filing a motion on 17 December asking the court to set a hearing.
DA King cited the wishes of the victims’ family members as well as the court’s power to reconsider the state’s sentencing requirements when dealing with a case of “unusual and extenuating circumstances”.
“As Colorado law required the imposition of the sentence in this case, the law also permits the Court to reconsider its sentence in an exceptional case involving unusual and extenuating circumstances,” reads the motion filed Friday.
“Now that the Defendant has been sentenced, the People again request the Court set a hearing as soon as practicable upon the receipt of the report.”
DA King wrote that her office was speaking with the victims’ families to get their input.
“Consistent with the People and the Court’s obligation under the Victim Rights Amendment, the People have begun conferring with the victims in this case to obtain and consider their input in advance of the Court’s hearing and notify them of the date determined by the Court,” it read.
“The People intend to file supplemental information prior to the hearing.”
DA King said she was seeking a reduced term of 20 to 30 years after getting the input of the victims and their families.
“Based on the facts of this case and input from the victims and their families, my office will be asking the court to consider a sentencing range of 20-30 years when the Court is prepared to address resentencing,” she said in a statement.
“As the jury found, Mr. Aguilera-Mederos knowingly made multiple active choices that resulted in the death of four people, serious injuries to others, and mass destruction. This sentencing range reflects an appropriate outcome for that conduct, which was not an accident.
“Given that the victims in this case have more than one view of an appropriate outcome, and this trial court heard the evidence presented, we believe that this hearing is the best path to securing justice for everyone involved.”
The DA’s motion marked a major turnaround from the prosecutor’s office which pursued 42 charges against the driver over the fatal accident. Jurors found him not guilty of 15 counts of criminal attempt to commit assault in the first degree.
Kim Kardashian joins the crusade
Kim Kardashian, who has recently taken the “baby bar” exam and has drawn attention to several injustices in the criminal justice system in recent years, posted a series of Instagram stories to her 271 million followers about the case.
She slammed mandatory minimum sentences which “take away judicial discretion and need to end” and called on Governor Jared Polis to “do the right thing” amid calls for clemency.
“He was not drunk or under the influence; his brakes on the tractor-trailer failed,” she wrote of the driver.
“Another shocking and unfair part of this case is that the judge didn’t want to sentence him to such a lengthy sentence.
“However, because of the mandatory minimums in Colorado, his hands were tied. Mandatory minimums take away judicial discretion and need to end.”
Kardashian also slammed the prosecutor’s social media post calling it “sick” and “another shocking part of the case”.
Governor Polis commutes sentence
Colorado Governor Polis stepped in on 30 December and commuted the 110-year prison sentence to just 10 years, calling the lengthy penalty for a fatal roadway accident “unjust.”
The governor’s office had previously confirmed it had received an application for clemency and was reviewing it.
The governor has the power to reduce a sentence or grant a full pardon.
“I am writing to inform you that I am granting your application for a commutation,” Governor Polis wrote to the Aguilera-Mederos.
“After learning about the highly atypical and unjust sentence in your case, I am commuting your sentence to 10 years and granting you parole eligibility on December 30, 2026.”
Aguilera-Mederos celebrated the announcement and thanked his supporters on Thursday.
“This commutation is far more reflective of the crime than 110 years,” his attorney James Colgan told ABC News. “Mr Mederos will be forever grateful for the millions of people that supported him.”
A hearing was set for 13 January to reconsider the sentence, but the commutation rendered it moot.
What do the victims’ families think?
The DA’s office condemned the governor’s decision to wade in ahead of the hearing.
DA King had previously said that the victims’ families supported a 20-30 year sentence, while the governor has halved that minimum amount.
“I joined the surviving victims and families of those who lost their loved ones in their wish to have the trial judge determine an appropriate sentence in this case, as he heard the facts and evidence of the defendant’s destructive conduct that led to death, injury, and devastating destruction,” Ms King said in a statement.
“We are meeting with the victims and their loved ones this evening to support them in navigating this unprecedented action and to ensure they are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect during this difficult time.”
One of the families of the four victims had previously welcomed the conviction and sentencing of the truck driver.
Mr Bailey’s widow Gage Evans told CBS Denver after the sentencing that she believed Aguilera-Mederos deserved a prison sentence for what happened.
“He was found guilty of reckless behavior that killed my husband that was the most important thing to me,” she said.
Mr Harrison’s widow Kathleen Harrison previously said she felt the 110 year term was too harsh, and a sentence of 20 years would have been more appropriate.
But she told TMZ she wanted Kardashian to stay out of the case after the reality star waded in.
“I don’t think that we want our local proceedings in any state taken over by who has the loudest mouth out there, because people don’t know all the details, they are running on emotion,” she said.
In the aftermath of the crash in 2019, Mr Politano’s wife spoke out to say she felt sorry for the man responsible for her husband’s death.
Cathi Politano told ABC7 her husband would have wanted his family to “take the high road”.
“He would say, ‘Take the high road,’ so we will,” she said.
“He wasn’t a man of vengeance, so what he would ask is that the boys take care of me, and they have.”