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Justice for Emily Cella

Court of Appeals upholds trucker's involuntary manslaughter conviction.

Emily Cella's life ended in a horrific and tragic traffic accident, just three weeks shy of her 20th birthday. Yet the man who robbed her of her future didn't want to give up four years of his to pay for what he did.

CONVICTED in June 9, 2004 of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving, trucker Dale Leon Kreider was later sentenced to four years in prison. But he appealed his conviction and was allowed to remain free on bond, pending the outcome.

The wait is now over. Last Tuesday, Oct. 31, the Court of Appeals of Virginia handed down its decision upholding his conviction.

"Kreider contends the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for involuntary manslaughter because the Commonwealth failed to prove he was criminally negligent," wrote the judges. "We disagree and affirm his conviction."

A 2001 graduate of Centreville High, Emily excelled in writing and photography and was a member of the National Honor Society. On Aug. 6, 2003, she was 19 and home visiting a close friend, as well as her family in Centreville's Rocky Run community.

Studying sociology at Mary Washington College, she was about to begin her junior year there and was driving back that night. But because of Kreider, she never made it. Instead, she died on the highway — crushed inside her Toyota Echo on I-95 by his tractor-trailer.

"It was just terrible," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney George Elsasser, who prosecuted the case against Kreider in Stafford County Circuit Court. "It's every parent's worst nightmare."

Indeed, during the trial's penalty phase, Emily's mother, Terri Cella, brought many people in the court to tears as she spoke of her devastating loss and how deeply she missed her child.

"I will no longer be able to feel her warm hugs or hear her laugh or sing," she said. "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."

A TRUCKER for 14 years, Kreider, then 33, of Akron, Pa., was traveling from Pennsylvania to Richmond with a load of ice cream products in his refrigerated truck and 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.

At the bottom of a small hill, three lanes were blocked and were directed to merge into the right lane. At that point, these vehicles were going just 5-7 mph. Cella's Toyota was the last in a row of slowed cars when the 18-wheeler — fully loaded with 35,261 pounds of cargo — smashed into it.

Kreider then plowed into the flatbed part of a tow truck driven by Andy Jett of Accokeek, Md. His vehicle, in turn, crashed into the back of the Ford pickup truck with trailer being driven by his brother, Wayne Jett, who owns a towing company. That night, the Jetts were carrying vehicles to Fredericksburg.

At Kreider's jury trial, Andy testified that he sustained a cracked rib and other internal injuries, Wayne hurt his knee and his wife Cindy — traveling with him — injured her back. Also testifying was Fredericksburg resident Steven 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.

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 Elsasser. "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."

Virginia State Trooper Jane Gibbs, who responded to the scene, testified that Kreider's rig was later inspected and found to have no mechanical defects. 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.

Another thing that stood out about the incident was Kreider's apparent lack of emotion or remorse about the young life he'd so brutally snuffed out.

ACCORDING TO Emily's father, Joe Cella, "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," he said. "He made no attempt to see what had happened to my daughter."

Furthermore, Gibbs testified that, when she showed Kreider Emily's driver'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. And at the trial, added Elsasser, "He expressed absolutely no concern about anyone he'd killed or injured."

Finding Kreider guilty, the jurors recommended he serve 3 1/2 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and six months for reckless driving. On Feb. 7, 2005, Judge J.W. Haley Jr. honored their wishes, running the sentences consecutively.

In their written opinion, the Court of Appeals judges discussed the trial and noted that the Jetts and Schneider both testified that Kreider's speed was between 75-80 mph prior to the accident and that they did not see his brake lights.

The judges also included a definition of involuntary manslaughter in the operation of a motor vehicle as "an accidental killing which — although unintended — is the proximate result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard of human life."

Clearly, wrote the judges, Kreider "was on notice that the road conditions ahead required a modification of his speed. However, [he] failed to heed several warning signs and continued to travel at a speed of from 75-80 mph, both before and after he crested the hill. And he failed to slow as he approached the merging traffic ... in a fully loaded tractor-trailer."

All these actions, they wrote, "demonstrated a disregard for others and a reckless indifference to the consequences, which he knew or should have known would cause injury to another. Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed."