Driver in fatal big-rig crash might testify |

Driver in fatal big-rig crash might testify

by Christy Chalmers

A Fernley truck driver may testify today about his part in a September 1997 collision that killed an Indian Hills man.

The criminal trial for Dillard Ray Cowart, 53, started Tuesday, with Cowart’s attorney raising questions about alcohol found in the accident victim’s system and telling jurors Cowart will testify about his actions leading up to the fatal wreck.

Cowart was driving a tractor-trailer rig that ran a red light on Highway 395 at Mica Drive Sept. 10, 1997, striking an eastbound sedan driven by Indian Hills resident Morris Aker, 67. Aker had pulled out from Mica Drive on a green traffic signal when his sedan was struck by one of the three trailers the southbound tractor was pulling. He died at the scene.

A felony charge of reckless driving causing substantial bodily harm or death was later filed against Cowart.

Defense attorney James Forman told jurors there’s no dispute that Cowart’s rig ran the light or that the rig’s brakes weren’t all operating.

But he disputes prosecutors’ claims that Cowart behaved recklessly or negligently and deliberately ran the light. And he cited autopsy reports that found Aker had a .04 percent blood-alcohol level, well below the legal limit of .10 percent for driving but a possible factor in the man’s judgment.

n Disagree with DA. “We disagree with the conclusions of the District Attorney’s office,” Forman said during his opening argument. “What we’re talking about here is a tragic accident. A moment of indiscretion.

“We’re not here to blame Mr. Aker’s death on him. Whether the alcohol affected Mr. Aker or whether it didn’t is for you to decide. Whether he could have avoided it, that’s something you are going to have to decide.”

But Deputy District Attorney Derrick Lopez told jurors that 44 percent of the brakes on the tractor and its three trailers were out of adjustment or not working. Federal law, he said, requires vehicles to be taken out of service if 20 percent of the brakes are deficient.

“It didn’t just happen,” said Lopez. “Just in driving this vehicle, (Cowart) would have known the brakes were not working properly. He knew his brakes were defective. He drove anyway.”

At the time, Cowart was working for Frehner Trucking, hauling road materials between a Gardnerville quarry and a job site in Carson City. Lopez said Cowart had been driving the rig for three days when the fatal wreck occurred.

Lopez said the rig left 320 feet of skid marks, and investigators estimated it was traveling at least 54 mph when Cowart began braking and 37 mph when it hit Aker’s vehicle.

Prosecution witnesses who saw the collision testified Tuesday that the truck veered in front of Aker’s car in an apparent attempt to avoid it, but that the truck was traveling too fast to stop for the red light.

Steven Sterchak, who was in the northbound highway lanes when he saw the collision, recalled finding a flattened beer can in the roadway that had some cold liquid on it. He also found pieces of a cooler and other debris near Aker’s vehicle.

n Damaged beer cans. During a preliminary hearing in May, Nevada Highway Patrol investigators said they noticed damaged beer cans, but the tabs on the cans were intact and the containers appeared to have been ruptured in the collision.

About 20 witnesses are expected to testify throughout the trial, which is expected to last through today and possibly into Thursday.

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