EAU CLAIRE - Attorney Earl Gray says Michael Kozlowski was the victim of a tragic accident in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, 2005.
That's the day a Chippewa Trails bus slammed into Kozlowski's overturned semi on Interstate 94 near Osseo, resulting in the deaths of five bus passengers and injuring countless others.
Kozlowski, 23, of Schereville, Ind., did nothing criminally wrong that morning, Gray contends. Kozlowski pleaded not guilty to five counts of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle, and 28 counts of reckless driving that caused great bodily harm or reckless driving that caused injury. He faces nearly 90 years in prison if convicted of all the felony counts.
Killed in the crash were marching band director Douglas Greenhalgh, 48, his wife Therese, 51, and their 11-year-old granddaughter, Morgan Greenhalgh, were killed, along with bus driver Paul Rasmus, 78, of Chippewa Falls, and Brandon Atherton, a 24-year-old student teacher.
Eau Claire District Attorney Rich White has added eight more charges against Kozlowski. The truck driver was originally charged with 25 offenses. He now faces 33, White said.
The charges mirror those filed previously, White said. They were presented because the DA's office learned that more people had been injured in the crash than previously thought, he said.
Kozlowski appeared Friday for his preliminary hearing in Eau Claire County Court and was later bound over for trial. No trial date has been set.
White presented testimony from a crash reconstruction specialist and two state troopers who were first to arrive on the accident scene. Also testifying were a man who had encountered the semi while driving that morning, and a woman from Indiana with whom Kozlowski allegedly had been drinking with at a bar the night before the accident.
Much of the testimony suggested that Kozlowski had fallen asleep behind the wheel of his semi, causing him to enter a ditch and eventually overturn his tractor and trailer over both westbound lanes of the interstate.
Kozlowski told investigators that he had been deliberately pulling onto the shoulder of the highway in order to go to the bathroom. He has stated that he lost control of the truck while looking away from the road in an attempt to turn on his warning lights and disengage the truck's cruise control.
Steven Prouty, a crash reconstruction specialist with the Wisconsin State Patrol, told Judge William Gabler that in his opinion Kozlowski fell asleep behind the wheel, losing control of his truck as a result of falling asleep. He based that opinion the angle upon which Kozlowski deviated from the highway and the distance which the semi traveled along the shoulder and in the ditch.
The semi had a 3 1/2-degree departure from the highway, Prouty said.
“That is consistent with people leaving the road and falling asleep,” Prouty said.
“If they are in a relaxed state the vehicle will drift. If they are pulling over there would be a deliberate steering action, which would create a much steeper angle,” he said.
Prouty testified that his investigation shows that the semi traveled 190 feet across the rumble strips along the right side of the road. The rumble strips are grooves in the pavement designed to make a loud noise in order to warn motorists they are about to leave the highway.
“The 190 feet research shows there was no corrective measures,” Prouty said.
In all, Kozlowski traveled about 590 feet along the shoulder and in the ditch before returning to the pavement and losing control of the vehicle, Prouty said.
The semi was traveling at speeds of 65 to 69 mph when the semi left the road, Prouty said. He said if Kozlowski was pulling over he would not have been traveling normal highway speeds, but decelerating so he could stop.
State Trooper Tom Walters, who interviewed Kozlowski after the accident at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire, had similar testimony.
Kozlowski told Walters in a statement that he was driving in 10th gear, high drive.
“If he was pulling over to urinate, he'd be slowing down and down-shifting,” Walters said.
Walters also questioned the validity of Kozlowski's statement that he was pulling over because he just passed the Osseo exit. There are numerous 24-hour truck-stops in the exit about three miles before the crash scene.
Trooper Jason Bakken, the first trooper on the scene, shared the grisly details of the accident scene.
“I approached the bus and the first person I approached was ejected from the bus. Several occupants appeared to be partially ejected but were still in their seats,” Bakken said.
“I went to the front of the bus and the driver of the vehicle was deceased. Three others appeared to be deceased,” he said.
Larry Quarles was driving alongside Kozlowski for a number of hours as he traveled I-94 on his way home to Spooner from Chicago.
Kozlowski caught Quales' attention near Tomah, where the semi driver appeared to have trouble maneuvering his rig, Quales said.
“I was concerned because the truck was pulling over to the right and hitting the rumble strips that line Interstate 94,” Quarles said.
From Madison up until the accident site west of Osseo, Kozlowski showed on multiple occasions that he was having difficulty driving, Quales said.
“One time he passed so close to me that he almost forced me from my lane and into the shoulder,” he said. “I was surprised because it was like the semi was being blown to the right - but there was no wind.”
Quales estimated that Kozlowski was driving at about 85 mph as they approached the Osseo exit, where Quales exited to get a cup of coffee.
“He passed me at a speed greater than 73, which is what where my cruise control was set.”
Just miles after getting on the highway after a 10-minute stop, Quales couldn't believe his eyes. The very same semi he had been jockeying with for a couple hours was involved in the accident.
Much of Friday's testimony centered on Kozlowski's actions in the 36 hours leading up to the accident.
Walters said GPS data showed that Kozlowski, who made the Munster, Ind. to St. Paul, Minn. route three times a week, had returned from a delivery at 8:45 p.m. Friday night.
By 11:30 p.m. Kozlowski is alleged to have been at a bar in Indiana where he met up with Michelle Kruse.
Kruse, testifying from Indiana by cellular telephone, said she met Kozlowski for the first time the night of Friday, Oct. 14, 2005. Kruse said she and Kozlowski were drinking alcohol and were at the bar until it closed at 3 a.m. The two went to a car in the parking lot, where they remained until 3:30 a.m. They went to a friend's house and returned to the bar at 5 a.m.
“We went to get his car and the plan was to go back to my apartment,” she said.
Kozlowski told Kruse he was going to go behind the building to go to the bathroom, but he never returned. The two never saw each other again, she said. Kruse said she made multiple attempts to contact Kozlowski on his cell phone, but he never returned her calls.
Kozlowski told investigators that after leaving the bar parking lot he returned home where he slept from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
But Walters suggested that Kozlowski's cell phone records contradict the truck driver's statement. Cell phone records indicate calls on his phone around 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m., some around noon, more around 3:30 p.m. and another at 5:04 p.m.
Judge Gabler scheduled a status conference with White and Gray for 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22. A trial date could be set at that time.
Reach Jeffrey Hage at email@example.com.