The semitrailer truck driver involved in a crash that claimed six lives on Interstate 80 was “inattentive and distracted by outside influences” when he rammed into a minivan “at a high rate of speed,” a Nebraska State Patrol trooper said in an arrest affidavit.
The driver, Tony Weekly Jr., 53, of Baker, Florida, was charged in Keith County Court on Tuesday with five counts of felony motor vehicle homicide — one for each member of the St. Paul, Minnesota, family who died Sunday in the fiery crash four miles west of Brule’s I-80 interchange — and a single misdemeanor count of reckless driving.
The sixth person, Terry Sullivan, 56, was declared dead Monday but was still on life support Tuesday.
Weekly, clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, kept his head down as he entered the courtroom Tuesday. When Keith County Judge Edward Steenburg informed him of his right to hire an attorney and asked whether he had any assets, Weekly responded: “Sir, I am a month away from losing my house and my car.”
The judge set an Aug. 29 preliminary hearing on whether he should face trial in Keith County District Court. Steenburg continued Weekly’s bail at $1 million — of which he must post 10 percent to be released — pending a determination of whether he could afford a lesser bail.
The crash occurred just before 11:30 a.m. MDT Sunday in a head-to-head crossover construction zone on Interstate 80. All of the vehicles involved were westbound on the Interstate. The construction zone has a posted temporary speed limit of 65 miles per hour. The normal speed limit is 75 mph.
Witnesses said Weekly’s truck “did not slow down until hitting the first vehicle,” Trooper Darrell Crawford said in the arrest affidavit.
That vehicle was the minivan carrying the Pals family of Minnesota. Jamison and Kathryne Pals and their three children died as a direct result of the initial impact,” Crawford said. Before coming to rest, the vehicles’ forward momentum pushed them into a Plymouth minivan driven by Sullivan, then a Nissan sport utility vehicle and finally a Ford van.
Killed Sunday were: Jamison and Kathryne Pals, both 29, and their children, Ezra, 3; Violet, almost 2; and 2½-month-old Calvin.
Weekly had minor injuries and was taken to Sedgwick County Hospital in Julesburg, Colorado. Authorities drew blood from him but have declined to comment on what the results might reveal.
Weekly was driving for Bohren Logistics Inc. of Garrett, Indiana.
A statement from the company said: “Those of us at Bohren Logistics are heartbroken by this tragic accident. We extend our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the relatives and friends of the Pals family for this devastating loss. We also wish the best and a speedy recovery for those injured in the accident. Bohren Logistics is committed to cooperating with law enforcement authorities investigating this accident.”
Fred Zwonechek of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety said the Sunday crash was the worst in Nebraska since at least Nov. 6, 2006, when five people died in a two-vehicle, head-on crash on Interstate 80 just west of Shelton, between Grand Island and Kearney.
The most fatalities from one crash on record in Nebraska occurred Aug. 8, 1976, when 11 people died, Zwonechek said. A train hit a church bus near Stratton, which is west of McCook.
The Palses intended to serve as long-term missionaries in Nagoya, Japan. They were headed to Palmer Lake, Colorado, for a five-week session on learning a language and assimilating into another culture, said Dennis Vogan, vice president of personnel development of the ministry organization WorldVenture.
“The Palses fit perfectly within our organization,” Vogan said. The missionaries in Japan “were thrilled and looking so forward to their coming,” he said.
The Palses had raised enough money to fund their mission work, which was to start in October, he said.
Rick Pals, Jamison’s father, said Tuesday that funeral services would be held at Jamison and Kathryne’s church, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He said the families of Jamison and Kathryne “have been very touched” by the “outpouring of sincere support” they have received.
“We’ve heard from people from all over the country and all around the world,” he said. “The president of Christ Bible Institute in (Nagoya) Japan is trying to make arrangements to be here for the funeral.”
Eventually, Rick Pals said, a foundation will be established to continue the missionary work that Jamison and Kathryne envisioned for themselves. For now, people can donate to www.gofundme.com/joyofjapan. As of Tuesday night, $16,500 had been raised toward the $20,000 goal.
“The generosity has been wonderful,” Rick Pals said. “Those donations and prayer are really what people can do to help us right now.”
Jamison Pals worked for just over three years as a grant writer for Feed My Starving Children. The Christian nonprofit based in Eagan, Minnesota, sends meals specially formulated for malnourished children to orphanages, schools, clinics and feeding programs around the world.
Andy Carr, the group’s vice president of marketing and development, said Jamison and Kathryne Pals were “amazing people” and good friends.
“They were the most humble and selfless people that you could ever meet,” he said. “In today’s world where it’s so much about me, me, me, it was never about them. It was always about others.”
Carr estimated that Jamison was responsible for writing grants that brought in “well over $1 million” to the organization. But his work didn’t stop there.
“We work with many small organizations that can’t afford to have grant writers and whenever they had questions about how to proceed, we’d point them to Jamison,” he said. “He would gladly assist them, and his impact went far beyond Feed My Starving Children.”
This report contains material from the World-Herald News Service.
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