After a Stafford County jury last week convicted the trucker who killed her teen-age daughter in a horrific crash, Centreville's Terri Cella described how she felt, Aug. 7, 2003, when two policemen came to her door.
"They ask if you're the mother of Emily Cella," she told the jurors. "And then they say, 'There's been a traffic accident.' And you know what they're gonna say next — although, in your head, you try everything in your power to make them say something different. But this was not imagination — this was my reality."
"The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life was to see her body in the funeral home before they put it in the coffin," testified Emily's father, Joe Cella. "She was loved by everybody who knew her, and we miss her terribly."
Just three weeks shy of her 20th birthday, Emily, a 2001 Centreville High grad, died in the wee hours of Aug. 7 when a Pennsylvania truck driver on I-95 slammed his tractor-trailer into the back of her Toyota Echo.
Last Wednesday, June 9, in Stafford County Circuit Court, a jury convicted the trucker, Dale Leon Kreider, 33, of Akron, Pa., of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving. After hearing all the testimony, said Joe Cella, "The jury was back in less than 45 minutes [with a verdict]." The jurors also recommended Kreider be sentenced to four years in prison.
Emily excelled in writing and photography at Centreville and was a member of the National Honor Society. She was about to begin her junior year at Mary Washington College, where she was studying sociology.
SHE'D BEEN HOME, Aug. 6, visiting her family in the Rocky Run community, as well as a close friend, and was returning to college, that night. Kreider, a trucker for 14 years, was also on I-95, traveling from Pennsylvania to Richmond with a load of ice cream products in his refrigerated truck. But he wasn't due in until 8 a.m.
All was well until 2 a.m., when traffic on I-95 South near Fredericksburg came to a near standstill because of construction. Three lanes were blocked, and vehicles were going 5-10 mph. Cella's Toyota was the last in a row of slowed cars when the 18-wheeler smashed into it.
"It was just terrible. It's every parent's worst nightmare," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney George Elsasser. Not only did Kreider hit Cella's car, he said, but he ran over it. Between the weight of the tractor-trailer and its load, said Elsasser, an estimated "70,000 pounds of mass was directing itself right onto that small Toyota."
Virginia State Police Sgt. Les Tyler testified during the trial. He supervised the Accident Reconstruction Team that went to the crash site. He said he measured skid marks 135 feet from the scene, and he showed photos he took from the crest of a hill looking down on the accident scene, a half-mile away. He also said the weather was clear, that night, and the road was dry.
State Trooper Jane Gibbs said neither alcohol nor drugs were factors in the crash, and photos of both vehicles — as well as two other trucks involved in the accident — were shown to the judge.
After hitting Cella's car, Kreider then plowed into the "rollback," or flatbed, part of a tow truck driven by Andy Jett of Accokeek, Md. His vehicle, in turn, smashed into the back of the Ford pickup truck with trailer being driven by his brother, Wayne Jett, who owns a towing company. The Jetts were carrying vehicles to Fredericksburg.
Andy testified that he cracked a rib and sustained other internal injuries. Wayne suffered a knee injury, and his wife Cindy — who was in the back seat of his truck — injured her back.
Also testifying was Fredericksburg resident Eric Schneider who was driving home from work after a music gig. He said he got onto I-95 South at the Stafford exit, just before the crash site. He told the jury that, as he was coming from Courthouse Road in Stafford onto the interstate, "Two tractor-trailers — one of which was Kreider's — blew by me as if I were standing still."
Schneider said he got behind them, "going 75 mph-plus," trailing by about a quarter-mile, right up to the accident scene. He said that, as the trucks crested the last hill before the crash, he was still doing 75 and they were pulling away from him.
THE BIG RIGS drove one behind the other, in the center lane. Generally, in this situation, the vehicle in front creates a draft for the following vehicle, enabling it to go faster because of decreased wind resistance.
Schneider then saw Kreider's truck pull into the right lane, hit the guardrail and bounce off into the first rollback truck. He immediately stopped his car, got out and went to see if he could help anyone. Kreider's engine was still running, and diesel fuel had spilled onto the highway.
Concerned that it could ignite into a fire, Schneider opened the passenger-side door of Kreider's tractor-trailer, climbed inside and tried to tell him to turn off his engine. But, he testified, Kreider — who was not injured — ignored him, leaned away from him and did something he couldn't see. (It was never learned what this was). When Kreider didn't respond, Schneider turned off the motor, himself.
Elsasser said Schneider also testified that he saw Kreider's rig drive over Cella's car. "The Toyota was pinned [underneath the trailer], between [it] and the guardrail, and was absolutely unrecognizable as a vehicle," said the prosecutor. "The only way Schneider and the other truck drivers knew to check under Kreider's truck was because they'd seen it run right over the top of the Toyota and, essentially, consume it."
Trooper Gibbs said a vehicle-inspection team examined Kreider's rig for any mechanical defects, but found none. And she and several others, including the Jett brothers, testified that there were warning signs — for at least three miles prior to the accident site — telling drivers that a work zone was ahead and the two left lanes were blocked. Both electronic and stationary, orange-and-black signs alerted motorists that they'd soon have to merge right.
Besides the tragic fact that, in an instant, a young life was taken, one of the most striking things about the whole incident has been Kreider's apparent lack of emotion about what he did. Although he apologized to Emily's family after he'd been convicted, until then, he seemed almost unconcerned.
"Both of the Jetts testified that, after the accident, he was just leaning on the guardrail, smoking a cigarette and making a few calls on his cell phone," said Emily's father. "He made no attempt to see what had happened to my daughter."
"The first thing Schneider and the other two truck drivers did was to go to the Toyota to check on the driver," said Elsasser. "Kreider didn't get out of the truck for some time. He sat there. He never asked, 'Is everybody OK? Did I injure or kill anyone?"
Indeed, Gibbs testified that, when she showed Kreider Emily's license and asked him, "Did you know that this 19-year-old girl was killed in this accident?" he had no verbal response and showed no reaction. Furthermore, said Elsasser, "At the trial, he expressed absolutely no concern about anyone he'd killed or injured."
Kreider also claims a lack of memory. When defense attorney Mark Murphy put his client on the stand, Kreider said he didn't remember anything about that night, from the time he'd stopped at a rest stop, just below Baltimore, until after the crash. "This, despite the fact that he'd called his insurance agent eight minutes after the accident," said Elsasser.
"He testified that he wasn't aware — until Gibbs showed him Emily's driver's license — that he'd hit her car," said Joe Cella. "But she didn't have an invisible deflector [shield around her]. You'd think he would have known." Added Elsasser: "It is difficult to believe that he could cause the damage he did to [all those] vehicles and not know that he'd driven over her car."
He said the Jetts both estimated Kreider's speed at 75 mph as he came "barreling" toward them. Said Elsasser: "They both knew they were going to be hit but, because of other vehicles and the guardrail, they couldn't get out of the way, so they just braced for the impact."
After Kreider was convicted — and before the jury deliberated on its recommended sentence — Emily's parents both testified during the penalty phase of his trial. Her mother took the stand first. She told the jury she was there, not just to explain how Emily's death affected her family, but also to honor her daughter's memory.
"She was the youngest of our four children," said Terri Cella. "She was a compassionate, caring person. She was very bright and had a great sense of humor. I could always count on her to be silly with me."
She said Emily was "everyone's friend" and had a wonderful singing voice; she'd even sung at The Kennedy Center. And everything Emily did, said her mother, she did with enthusiasm and with a love for life. But all these things make her pain even sharper when she realizes what she'll no longer be able to experience.
"I will no longer be able to feel her warm hugs, which she gave often, or to hear her laugh — which she did all the time — or to hear her sing, which I loved," said Cella. "I will never be able to see her graduate from college, or marry or have children. Every time we have a family gathering, I think Emily should be here. Each time the phone rings, I think that should be Emily. And I'll never be able to hear her say, 'I love you,' again."
Stressing the fact that her daughter was just starting her life, Cella said everyone who knew Emily knew she was going to have an exciting and interesting future, and they all looked forward to sharing it with her.
"Dale Kreider has taken that all away," she said. "I think he needs to take responsibility for what he has done to our beautiful daughter." During his testimony, a grieving Joe Cella spoke of how Emily's death haunts him: "The fact that our youngest daughter is dead — and the manner in which she died — is with me constantly."
Then Kreider took the stand and apologized to the Cellas. "He said he didn't mean for this to happen," said Joe Cella. The jury then deliberated a half hour and recommended Kreider serve 3 1/2 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and six months for reckless driving.
"I'm glad they found him guilty," said Terri. "But I'm still not happy, because it doesn't bring Emily back." Joe believes the recommended sentence is fair and hopes that, when Kreider's sentenced Sept. 7, it'll set some precedent for Virginia truckers in such accidents. "We're going to write to Gov. Warner and ask him to ask the legislature to enact tougher laws for interstate truck drivers to get them to slow down and drive more safely," he said.
Elsasser said the case was emotional for the jury to work through, and it satisfied him to see the jury hold Kreider accountable for Emily's death: "Sadly, nothing we could do in the courtroom could change the horrible outcome, that night, or the tragic sequence of events the defendant put into play by his negligent operation of a motor vehicle."
He called Terri's testimony both chilling and powerful. "There were people in the jury box and in the courtroom weeping," he said. "The Cellas are amazingly strong people, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them."
They've established a scholarship in Emily's name. Contributions payable to Mary Washington Foundation may be sent to: Mary Washington College, Attn: Nina Thompson, director of development, P.O. Box 1908, Fredericksburg, VA 22402. Write "Emily Cella, account No. 4-9416," on the message line.