Police: Dump truck driver skipped truck check before fiery Santa Rosa crash

A police investigation into a February crash involving a dump truck hauling debris from burned homes in Fountaingrove found the driver failed to ensure brakes were in working order.|

The driver of a runaway dump truck that crashed into traffic as it carried fire debris down a Fountaingrove hill - paralyzing a Santa Rosa woman and injuring six others - was responsible for the fiery wreck because he failed to maintain working brakes, Santa Rosa police officials said Sunday.

Driver Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale skipped a routine inspection of the truck before he set out early Feb. 5 to begin hauling debris from burned home sites to the dump, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chad Heiser said.

Police officials Sunday announced the completion of the department’s four-month investigation into the 10-vehicle crash, which found the driver committed a vehicle code violation for failing to maintain brakes in good working order, an infraction that brings fines but no jail time. Heiser said they found no criminal negligence, but the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office will review the report to determine if there was any criminal violation.

“It’s more of a civil liability issue than a criminal issue,” Heiser said Sunday. “It’s an accident. Something bad happened and it caused damage and injury in this case. There wasn’t anything obvious we could point to for criminal negligence.”

The findings suggest any repercussions for the incident will be determined through civil proceedings. At least three crash victims have filed civil lawsuits in Sonoma County Superior Court against Rodriguez, his employer and the other companies involved in subcontracting and loading debris trucks.

A lawyer for Rodriguez and his company, Flores Trucking Co., couldn’t be reached Sunday. A representative for ECC, a Burlingame-based government contractor working to clear burned residential lots, also couldn’t be reached.

The crash occurred at 9:25 a.m. when Rodriguez was driving a company vehicle, a four-axle 2009 Kenworth heavy-duty truck, down Fountaingrove Parkway toward Mendocino Avenue, a Santa Rosa intersection bustling with an endless stream of trucks hauling debris from Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood.

The driver later told police his brakes failed as he headed toward the intersection and couldn’t stop.

The truck barreled through a red light at Mendocino Avenue and slammed into multiple vehicles, catching several on fire. The fire incinerated the dump truck, three vans and two pickups, leaving behind a mangled mess of burned debris across the roadway.

Three of seven people hurt in the chain-reaction crash were critically injured, including Barbara Schmidt, 76, who had lost her home on Riebli Road in the October firestorm, as well as her passenger and longtime friend Cheryl Strong, 72, of Windsor.

Schmidt suffered extensive internal injuries and is now paraplegic, said her attorney Cynthia McGuinn with San Francisco law firm Rouda Feder Tietjen & McGuinn. The crash upended the lives of Schmidt, her wife and their daughter, already uprooted by losing their home to the Tubbs fire, McGuinn said. Schmidt resides in a long-term rehabilitation center but has been hospitalized several times due to ongoing complications from her injuries, she said.

“Her life is inexorably changed. Her wife’s life is changed. Their daughter’s life is changed,” McGuinn said. “She’s going to need a lot of care and support. Her life isn’t going to look like it was.”

The damage to the truck hampered the investigation but officers were able to inspect the wheels and brakes, though not the braking system, Hesier said.

The driver told police the brakes seemed to be working properly when he started working the morning of Feb. 5 but began to fail as he headed downhill with a load of debris from a Fountaingrove site, the sergeant said.

The Press Democrat revealed in April that a special team of CHP crash investigators determined only five of the truck’s eight brakes worked properly and the vehicle was overweight, findings disputed by the company that subcontracted with the driver’s employer, Vallejo-based Flores Trucking Co. The CHP team was brought in to assist Santa Rosa police because it has expertise in collisions involving commercial trucking, and the findings are included in the Santa Rosa police report.

Those investigators also found the truck driven by Rodriguez was overdue for service and above its Department of Transportation-set weight limit.

Heiser said Flores Trucking Co. received an “unsatisfactory” rating during a spot inspection after the Feb. 5 crash. Investigators weren’t able to establish a history of prior violations “because, quite honestly, they hadn’t been inspected for quite a while,” Heiser said.

Heiser said he couldn’t release the Santa Rosa police report Sunday or provide additional details because the records department needed to review it before dissemination.

“There were actions taken and not taken that could definitely point to some civil liability and negligence,” Heiser said. “But that’s out of the realm of the police department.”

But ECC, a contractor on the government-directed cleanup of debris from the October wildfires, disagreed with those findings. A company executive said in April the truck recently had its brakes serviced and claimed the vehicle was carrying a load within its allowable weight limit on the day of the crash.

McGuinn said Schmidt and her wife Nikki Winovich have not yet filed for punitive damages in their civil lawsuit, but they will consider that step if the police investigation shows the driver or the companies involved demonstrated a willful disregard for the safety of others.

“If the brakes weren’t maintained and the truck was overloaded, all of those things show a reckless disregard for public safety,” McGuinn said.

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