Mattoon man arraigned in fatal distracted-driving crash on I-57

Mattoon man arraigned in fatal distracted-driving crash on I-57

URBANA — The attorney for a Mattoon man criminally charged with causing the death of a child by his distracted driving wants to hear what evidence that state has.

Champaign attorney Matt Lee asked Judge John Kennedy to set a probable cause hearing for Steven Kruse.

The 37-year-old man was arraigned Wednesday on six felony counts stemming from a late afternoon accident on June 8 on Interstate 57 near Champaign that killed Caitlin Conner, 10, of Camargo, and injured her older sister and her grandmother.

Kennedy allowed Kruse to remain free on his own recognizance and set the hearing for Feb. 14. Kruse had been issued a traffic ticket immediately after the accident but more serious criminal charges were filed against him Jan. 17 after State's Attorney Julia Rietz received accident reconstruction reports. Wednesday was Kruse's first court appearance on the criminal charges.

Lee said he has not yet received the Illinois State Police reports that Rietz relied on in charging Kruse with reckless homicide, aggravated use of an electronic communication device, and aggravated reckless driving.

The reckless homicide charge said Kruse was approaching, "at a high rate of speed," a construction zone on I-57 where traffic was stopped and "looked away from the road and picked up his cellphone in response to some audible sound from the device resulting in him being unable to stop his vehicle in time to avoid a collision, thereby causing the death of Caitlin Conner."

Reckless homicide, a Class 3 felony, is the most serious of the charges against Kruse. Conviction carries penalties from 30 months of probation, a $25,000 fine up to two to five years in prison.

The aggravated reckless driving and aggravated unlawful use of an electyronic communication device counts are Class 4 felonies, with penalties ranging from probation to one to three years in prison.

Those counts use language that accuse Kruse of "willful and wanton disregard for the safety of persons and property" by operating his car at a fast speed near a construction zone and looking away from the road and picking up a beeping cellphone.

The charges allege his careless actions led to the death of Caitlin Conner and caused great bodily harm to Lily Lawrence, 13, of Camargo, and Debra Conner, 58, of Mattoon.

Both Debra Conner and Kruse were southbound when the crash occurred. Kruse's Jeep Cherokee hit the rear of Conner's Chevrolet Cobalt, driving it into the rear of a stopped semitrailer tractor truck.

The girls' parents appeared in court with other relatives to see Kruse arraigned, but declined through a victim witness advocate for the state's attorney's office, to say anything.

Kruse came to court with his parents.

After the hearing, Lee said his client is "very, very sorry" for what happened. "On behalf of Steven, I want to express our deepest condolences to the Conner family."

"The loss of Caitlin Conner is a profound tragedy," Lee said, adding it's difficult to imagine the loss and grief the family is experiencing.

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