By Dennis Sullivan, Kim Geiger and Geoff Ziezulewicz
3:50 PM CDT, July 22, 2014
The driver of a semi-truck that hit three stopped vehicles on Interstate 55 Monday afternoon, killing four people and injuring four others, was ordered held in lieu of $1 million bail Tuesday.
Francisco Espinal-Quiroz, of Leesburg, Ind., was charged with false recording of commercial driving records of duty status and failure to maintain a record of duty status. Both are class four felonies.
Additionally, he is charged with two traffic violations: Failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision and falsifying his duty logbook.
Prosecutors allege that Espinal-Quiroz falsified his logbooks to make it appear that he had been driving for a shorter period of time than he had actually been on the road. Espinal-Quiroz told officers at the scene of the crash that he had falsely reported that he had started his shift at 6 a.m. when he had actually started at 2:30 a.m., prosecutors said.
Espinal-Quiroz, wearing a green long-sleeved shirt and glasses, remained silent during the bond court hearing at the Will County courthouse in Joliet. A U.S. citizen who is a native of Honduras, he is required to surrender his passport as a condition of bond.
Espinal-Quiroz’s truck was going 15 miles per hour over the speed limit when it crashed into the vehicles, prosecutors said. Prosecutors said the high bond amount was justified because four people were killed in the crash and because the accident occurred in a construction zone.
Prosecutors also said that Espinal-Quiroz failed to maintain a logbook for seven days’ worth of driving history, as required.
Will County Assistant State’s Attorney James Long said in court that Espinal-Quiroz had been charged with other traffic violations dating back to 1991. According to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicle records, Espinal-Quiroz was convicted of speeding three times between 2011 and 2013 and also convicted of disregarding a traffic control device in a commercial vehicle, as well as other license violations.
The four killed were Ulrike P. Blopleh, 48, of Channahon; Vicky L. Palacios, 54, of Coal City; Kimberly K. Britton, 43, of Urbana; and Piper Britton, 11, according to the Will County coroner's office. Four other people were taken to local hospitals after the crash. Their conditions were not immediately released.
A mother of four, Blopleh was a member of the Kingdom of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wilmington, according to elder Steve Flynn, who spoke for the family Tuesday. She and three of her children were returning from blueberry picking when the crash occurred. Blopleh was a passenger in the vehicle, which was stopped at the time of the crash, Flynn said.
The family’s youngest son remained at Loyola as of Tuesday afternoon, Flynn said, but he appeared to be in good condition. The other children were unharmed, he said.
“She was a dedicated mom,” Flynn said outside the family’s Channahon home. “She was a super mom. She was a housewife, a good wife to her husband, but she was also an incredible volunteer for her ministry.”
Blopleh originally hailed from Germany and had been married to her husband, Moses, for 21 years, according to Flynn.
Blopleh spent most of her time volunteering for the church, doing door-to-door ministry or helping build or maintain various houses of worship, Flynn said.
“She also learned how to be a carpenter, a roofer and a logistics expert to volunteer to build our places of worship,” Flynn said. “She built her kids the tree house in the back. She built the chicken coop just recently so the kids now are raising chickens. She was always doing something, building something, taking her newfound skills and fixing things.”
Espinal-Quiroz was driving for Leesburg-based Espinal Trucking, according to a state police spokeswoman. Federal records indicate that the company is a one-truck, one-driver operation owned by Espinal-Quiroz. The company has no history of crashes, records show. The carrier has been subjected to just one driver inspection and has no federal safety rating.
Espinal-Quiroz underwent mandatory blood and urine testing for drugs and alcohol, state police district commander Randy Ness said in a news conference Monday night. Those tests are mandated by law any time a fatal crash occurs involving commercial motor vehicles, Ness said.
The defendant's attorney, Nicole Sartori, had argued for $100,000 bail, saying the defendant has lived at the same residence for eight years and is the sole breadwinner for the family.
In photographs of the crash, some of the vehicles involved were crushed beyond recognition. The three vehicles were stopped in traffic, less than a mile to the south of where the interstate's two lanes merge to one in a construction zone, police said.
The truck was passing vehicles in the left lane and abruptly made a lane change, striking the rear of one of the vehicles, "pushing them all together in the crash," Ness said.
"Witnesses …said the truck was driving at a high rate of speed and the traffic was all at a dead stop as it was merging," Ness said.Dennis Sullivan is a freelance reporter, Geiger and Ziezulewicz are Tribune reporters.
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