The case against a Phoenix trash truck driver who killed four motorcyclists more than two years ago may finally be resolved this month. The truck driver is Michael J. Jakscht. (See photo.)
Twenty-six months ago Jakscht was charged with four counts of manslaughter, five counts of aggravated assault and seven counts of endangerment. Those charges were later reduced to include only four counts of endangerment. He was previously tried in August 2011. Jurors split nine to three on whether Jakscht was guilty or not and the judge declared a mistrial. Jury selection in Jakscht’s second trial began last week.
On March 25, 2010 Jakscht ran his 23,000 pound trash truck over and through a pack of eight motorcycles carrying nine people. The bikes were stopped at a red light behind an SUV and a pickup truck at the intersection of 27th Avenue and Carefree Highway near I-17 in Phoenix. The trash truck did not stop for about 50 feet. It crashed through the SUV and rammed it and three other vehicles into the intersection. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and visibility was limited only by the curvature of the earth.
Six of the nine people in the pack were seriously injured. Todd Faasse, who was riding at the front of the pack, was knocked out of his boots and thrown about 20 yards. He sustained a broken back, a dislocated neck, broken ribs and a concussion but he survived. Three of the riders, Clyde R. Nachand, Stephen Punch and Daniel L. Butler, died quickly if not mercifully. They were trapped under Jakscht’s truck. After the collision the SUV and the trash truck both caught fire and Naschand, Punch and Butler died in the blaze. Phoenix Fire Deputy Chief Frank Salomon called it “a horrific scene.” A woman named Dayle Downs-Tonotchi died the next day. She had been riding at the front of the pack next to Faasse.
All of the victims were members of a very informal meetup group called Krusers. Krusers organized short, long and overnight rides for people who wanted to get in the wind and make new friends. All of the victims were impeccably good citizens. Nachand was a retired Navy Commander. One of the injured was a Phoenix Fire Captain named Ernie Lizarraga.
Jakscht never applied his brakes but he passed a field sobriety test at the scene. He was also given a blood test after the accident which later indicated that Jakscht was under the influence of methamphetamine when he ran over the motorcycles. It was Jakscht’s second accident in two weeks. He was previously cited for “failure to control speed” after running into a stopped car in Scottsdale.
Jakscht took the stand during his first trial and apologized for the accident. He said he blamed “mechanical failure” for the tragedy. He claimed he “slammed on” the brakes before the accident but the brakes failed. “I’d say it (his truck) was fine throughout the morning, then gradually it just pulled to the left,” he said about how he aimed right at the pack of bikes. He told the jury he had inspected his truck’s brakes before he began his first run that day but that the brakes seemed to fade as the day wore on. “When I put the brake on, it made a sound,” he said. He described himself as “…in shock, I was numb,” about the moments after the accident.
At the first trial, one of Jakscht’s two attorneys, Robyn Varcoe, argued that her client had not used methamphetamine but had only taken diet pills. The judge in the current trial, Joseph Welty, has already stated that he will not allow the diet pill defense this time.
The case is still not a slam dunk for the prosecution. Although the standard by which a person can be determined to be intoxicated by alcohol is set by statute, there is no standard to determine whether a driver is intoxicated by methamphetamine or simply has the drug in his system. By law, if the jury decides Jakscht’s was voluntarily intoxicated, he acted in “reckless disregard” of the consequences of his intoxication and he is guilty. If he was not intoxicated but only had methamphetamine in his system, he is probably not guilty.
So Jakscht’s fate at least partly depends on how much methamphetamine a jury decides is too much meth. “You are not here to decide if this was a bad accident,” Varcoe’s co-counsel Jennifer Willmott, told the jury yesterday in her opening statement.
Everybody already knows it was a horrible catastrophe and the victims of it were clearly not at fault. The question now is did Jakscht do it? Or was the real culprit the trash truck?