Judge finds probable cause to try Mattoon man in fatal I-57 accident

Judge finds probable cause to try Mattoon man in fatal I-57 accident

URBANA — A Champaign County judge Friday ruled that there is enough evidence against a Mattoon man to try him on charges alleging that his distracted driving killed a Camargo child.

Judge Adam Dill made his finding after hearing about 20 minutes of testimony regarding the tragic consequences of Steven Kruse's momentary distraction on June 8.

The 38-year-old Mattoon man was told to be back in court May 3 to face charges of reckless homicide, aggravated reckless driving and aggravated use of an electronic communication device.

Kruse is accused of causing the death of Caitlin Conner, 10, and injuries to her sister and grandmother, who were all in a car that he rear-ended on Interstate 57.

Debra Conner, 59, of Mattoon, Lily Lawrence, 14, and Caitlin were in Mrs. Conner's Chevrolet Cobalt, which had stopped in the southbound lanes because of a traffic backup. They were near the I-74 interchange.

"The Chevrolet was stopped three seconds before it was hit by the Jeep," said Illinois State Police Special Agent Kyle Border, the state's sole witness at the probable-cause hearing.

Under questioning by Assistant State's Attorney Victoria Dedman, Border testified that Kruse was driving a minimum of 68 mph when he hit Conner's car. There was no indication that he braked before the collision, but he did after the contact, Border said.

Border said semi driver John Scholes was in front of Conner's car and was also stopped in the traffic backup in the southbound right lane.

"He looked out the driver's-side rear-view mirror and noticed a Jeep approach at a high speed. He didn't see the crash but felt a shudder and saw the Jeep careening off," Border said.

The shudder was caused by Conner's car hitting the back of Scholes' 53-foot-long box trailer.

Border said the area where the collision happened was about 1,100 feet north of the beginning of a construction zone. There were five traffic signs warning of the upcoming traffic delay on both sides of the highway starting 1.3 miles north of the crash and ending two-tenths of a mile before it.

The electronic signs were all working; the road was dry, straight and level; and the temperature outside was 81 degrees, he said. There was nothing in the road obstructing visibility, which Border said was 10 miles that late-spring afternoon.

Kruse "said he was southbound listening to the radio and he heard his phone ding and retrieved it from the passenger seat and when he looked up, he saw the cars. He tried to veer left to avoid them but was unable," Border said.

A court-authorized search of Kruse's phone revealed that he had sent a message at 3:43 p.m. and received one at 3:57 p.m., the same time the 911 call about the crash came in.

Border said accident-reconstruction specialist Trooper Kevin Caskey concluded that the crash was the result of Kruse's failure to reduce his speed to avoid the accident, due to him being distracted by his cellphone. Caitlin died of blunt-force trauma to her chest, he said.

Despite the presence of about 30 people, the courtroom was very still as Border laid out the sad facts.

Dill made his finding of probable cause without giving defense attorney Matt Lee of Champaign a chance to ask questions of Border, which is typical in preliminary hearings.

The most serious of the charges against Kruse is reckless homicide, a Class 3 felony carrying penalties ranging from probation to two to five years in prison. The other counts against him are Class 4 and Class A misdemeanors with lesser penalties.

Among the spectators in the courtroom were about 20 family members and supporters of Caitlin Conner, including her parents and injured grandmother. The group met in the hall with representatives of the state's attorney's office after the hearing.

At least four cars in the parking lot outside the courthouse had stickers on their rear windows saying: "Stop Distracted Driving. We accept Caitlin's Challenge."

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