In what authorities and victims' families hope serves as a message to the entire trucking industry, a Chicago truck driver blamed for the deaths of eight women in a horrific 2003 crash on the Northwest Tollway was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison.
Vincente Zepeda, 54, received the near-maximum sentence on the eight counts of reckless homicide stemming from allegations he was inattentive and driving too fast when his 76,000-pound rig slammed into the rear of a packed tour bus near the Marengo/Hampshire toll plaza.
McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather said anything less than the 4-year term would diminish the seriousness of his errors and send the wrong message to other drivers.
"A prison sentence is necessary to deter others from committing the same conduct," Prather said.
Zepeda, who bowed his head and stared straight down as Prather handed down the decision, was led away to the McHenry County jail after his sentencing. With likely time off for good behavior, he could be free in about 19 months.
His defense has indicated it will appeal his conviction.
It was Prather who in November found Zepeda guilty of the charges after a three-day trial in which she heard testimony the truck driver was traveling more than 60 mph in a 45 mph construction zone just before the crash.
It happened during the mid-afternoon hours of Oct. 1, 2003, as traffic began to back up on eastbound Interstate 90 just before the toll plaza. His truck rear-ended a 25-passenger bus, triggering a five-vehicle pileup that would leave eight women dead, injure about a dozen others and halt tollway traffic for hours.
The women aboard the bus, including all eight victims, were members of Illinois Women's Associates, an organization for foreign women living in the Chicago area. The group was returning from an outing at a Japanese gardens near Rockford when the crash occurred.
John Buenz, whose wife Olga "Oogie" Buenz, 66, was among the victims, said he has sympathy for Zepeda, but that a harsh sentence was necessary.
"The precedent has to be set for the trucking industry that when you do something like this there has to be a severe penalty," he said. "There has to be a message."
In a statement read in court, Buenz described his wife of 43 years as a dedicated mother and grandmother who continued to work with struggling students after ending her career as a teacher to rear her children.
"Oogie's sudden death was a devastating loss not only to her family and friends, but also the young students who looked to her to help them surmount their academic problems," he said.
In his own statement to the court, Zepeda apologized to the women's families but called the crash an unavoidable accident.
"I am very sorry for all of the families, but there was nothing I could do," he said through a Spanish interpreter.
During last year's trial Zepeda denied from the witness stand that he was speeding before the collision. He testified he tried as best he could to avoid the bus but could not stop quickly enough when it braked suddenly in front of his semitrailer truck.
McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi, who took some criticism in bringing the charges against Zepeda, said he felt vindicated by the conviction and prison sentence.
"We felt like we were doing the right thing and, fortunately, we're always guided by that principle," he said. "Hopefully the (victims') families can now find some closure."
For Buenz, that closure might not come until he believes the trucking industry has taken the message sent Thursday to heart.
"Forgiveness is a two-way street," he said. "The industry needed a message."