In April 2019, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos crashed a semi-truck into cars stopped in traffic on a Colorado highway, causing a 28-car pileup that killed four people, injured six others and led to an explosion.
Now, two Colorado prosecutors are facing criticism for apparently celebrating the conviction with a trophy made from a brake shoe, a reference to the deadly incident.
Kayla Wildeman, a deputy district attorney who worked on Aguilera-Mederos’s case, posted a photo on Facebook of a brake shoe adorned with a shiny plaque that was engraved with her name, the case’s number and the words “I-70 case,” according to a screenshot of the Facebook post, which does not show when it was published. Wildeman said Trevor Moritzky, a fellow prosecutor in the office, made it for her as a gift.
“Get yourself a trial partner as great as Trevor Moritzky,” Wildeman wrote. “He turned a brake shoe from a semi truck into a memento.”
She called it a “special gift.”
Prosecutor Kayla Wildeman is absolutely ecstatic about the conviction of Aguilera-Mederos.— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) December 20, 2021
After achieving a 110-year prison term for the 23-year-old truck driver whose brakes failed (no drugs/alcohol), she calls a brake shoe trophy a “special gift.”https://t.co/US4ME7JVU3 pic.twitter.com/TgyHRhtVvI
In a statement shared with The Washington Post, First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King said Wildeman’s post “was in very poor taste and does not reflect the values of my administration,” adding: “We have addressed it internally.”
A spokesman for King did not specify how the issue was addressed. King added that the brake shoe was not a piece of evidence in the case.
Neither Moritzky nor Wildeman immediately responded to requests for comment late Monday.
Aguilera-Mederos’s case drew national attention after the 26-year-old truck driver was sentenced to 110 years in prison, a term critics argued was excessive. Before issuing the sentence, Judge A. Bruce Jones said he did not want to see Aguilera-Mederos spend the rest of his life in prison but added that he did not have the discretion to hand down a lesser sentence. Meanwhile, an online petition for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) to commute Aguilera-Mederos’s sentence has garnered more than 4 million signatures.
A truck driver got 110 years in prison for a deadly collision. Millions signed a petition calling that excessive.
A central aspect in the case involved the brakes on the semi-truck Aguilera-Mederos drove and eventually crashed. While both sides agreed the brakes malfunctioned, the prosecution argued that the problem was largely Aguilera-Mederos’s fault.
“Either the defendant didn’t catch it like he was supposed to, or the defendant drove on his brakes the entire way and caused them to be that way,” Wildeman said in court, according to KUSA.
Aguilera-Mederos’s defense argued that the brakes were already bad and that he should not be blamed for using faulty equipment. “Mr. Mederos had no idea that what he was dragging behind him from Houston was an inoperable trailer,” defense attorney James Colgan said in court, according to KUSA. “He had no idea that when he needed those trailer brakes, they weren’t going to exist.”
A jury ultimately sided with the prosecution, but the guilty verdicts should be no reason to celebrate with a “memento” of a brake shoe, Colgan said in an interview with The Post.
“I can’t understand why they would celebrate a tragedy where four people are dead and other people are hurt and someone has been sentenced to basically a life sentence in prison,” he said. “It’s just in poor taste.”
When he was a prosecutor, Colgan said, he never celebrated putting someone in prison for life.
Douglas Cohen, a defense attorney and former prosecutor in the first judicial district attorney’s office, told the Denver Post that celebrations like high-fives are common for all trial lawyers. “That said, the brake shoe memento shows a total lack of empathy and dishonors the role of prosecutors.”
Now that Aguilera-Mederos has been sentenced, Colgan said, he and his client are considering a clemency application to Polis. (A spokesman for Polis told the Denver Post that the governor’s office would expedite consideration of Aguilera-Mederos’s clemency application if and when he files one.)
Colgan also said Aguilera-Mederos may appeal the verdict or petition the court to reduce the sentence. If they seek a sentence reconsideration, Colgan said, there’s “a good possibility” he may use the brake shoe trophy as an example of prosecutorial misconduct.
“Everything possible is on the table right now,” he said.