Prosecutors: Semi driver was looking at phone during crash that killed Wausau native
LAKE ELMO, Minn. (KSTP)-- The driver of a semitrailer who crashed into a vehicle driven by a central Wisconsin native Tuesday in Lake Elmo had his eyes on his cell phone for the eight seconds preceding the crash, according to charges filed Wednesday in Washington County.
Citing footage from a camera on the semi, investigators say 28-year-old Samuel Wayne Hicks of Independence, Wisconsin, made no effort to brake before striking the vehicle – which was at a complete stop at the intersection of Highway 36 and Lake Elmo Avenue – at a speed of 63 miles per hour.
Hicks now faces one count of criminal vehicular homicide, a felony carrying a maximum of 10 years in prison and/or $20,000 in fines.
Killed in the crash was 54-year-old business owner and biology instructor Robert Bursik of Amery, Wisconsin. Investigators say Bursik's vehicle was damaged beyond recognition in the crash, and only later determined to be a 2015 Toyota Scion.
Amery Mayor Kay Erickson said she is a friend of the Bursik family, and the small western Wisconsin city is reeling from shock.
"I couldn't believe it, and I do not think it has entirely sunk in, but I am sure everyone is stunned by this because he was such a great guy," Erickson said. "And to find out it didn't have to happen is really difficult."
According to the charging document, Hicks told investigators he had been driving since about 4:45 a.m. Tuesday. He was familiar with the highway, which he said he drove once a week.
He was eastbound on Highway 36 before the crash, which occurred shortly before 12:15 p.m. Hicks initially told a state patrol investigator he had noticed the light at Lake Elmo Avenue was green from a distance, became distracted by another vehicle, and turned to look, according to the complaint.
When he turned back, he struck Bursik's vehicle, he told the investigator.
After further questioning, the complaint says, he admitted his cell phone had been in his right hand, and that he'd been texting his girlfriend on and off along the highway.
They were texting about a house, he said, which he also looked up on his Zillow app while driving, according to the complaint.
The state patrol was later provided video from a camera mounted on the semi that showed on a split screen footage from both a forward-facing and a rear-facing lens.
The rear-facing lens showed the inside of the cab, and the forward-facing lens showed the road ahead.
According to the complaint, Hicks's phone was in his right hand for the duration of the video.
"(Hicks) appears to be texting or accessing an application on his phone, and for an entire eight seconds, the defendant's eyes are looking down at his phone," the complaint states.
It says he made no effort to brake before striking Bursik's vehicle while going 63 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone, and that it appeared he was still looking down at his phone at the moment of impact.
Erickson said the accusations of texting and driving just add another layer of hurt to the entire tragedy. And she noted the driver of the truck and his family are also facing a crisis.
"To think this all could have been avoided if someone would have just put a phone down and paid attention to just one thing," she said. "And that was driving a truck. This just didn't have to happen."
The camera footage showed Bursik's vehicle was at a complete stop at the red light with brake lights illuminated, the complaint says.
Authorities arriving at the scene Tuesday found "a dark purple or burgundy colored passenger car that was so severely damaged that the officers were unable to determine the make or model of the vehicle," the complaint says. The car's back end was pushed nearly as far forward as the driver's side door.
It was found on the left shoulder of eastbound Highway 36, just east of Lake Elmo Avenue, against a cable barrier. Hicks' semi, with significant front-end damage, was found about 50 yards ahead and had taken out a number of cable barrier posts, according to the complaint.
Authorities were unable to extract Bursik at the scene. The extraction occurred at the Lake Elmo Fire Department after the vehicle was towed.
Hicks was treated by medics at the scene and released. He was charged on warrant, and is not in custody.
The eastbound lanes of Highway 36 were closed and traffic was rerouted near the scene of the crash until about 4:30 p.m.
According to Brusik's obituary, he was born in Wausau and graduated from Marathon High School. As a child he worked for his parent's business, Bursik's Greenhouse in Rib Mountain.
Bursik owned Dragonfly Gardens Greenhouse and Nursery in Amery. He also taught biology at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.
In a Facebook post, his greenhouse and nursery said:
"It is with heavy hearts that we share the news of the unexpected passing of owner Rob Bursik. Please keep his family, friends and employees in your thoughts and prayers.