The 57-year-old out-of-state roofer accused of causing a chain-reaction crash driving in the wrong direction on Interstate 80, killing five people and critically burning another sat quietly as a Carbon County judge ruled there’s enough evidence to try him in district court on a laundry list of felony charges.
Arthur Nelson, wearing glasses and the standard black-and-white stripes of an inmate, seemed composed while taking notes intermittently Wednesday afternoon as a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper recounted the grisly details of the Jan. 22 crash.
He also looked on as his public defender, Michael Bennett, suggested Nelson may have failed field impairment tests because he was suffering from a concussion.
Bennett tried to plant seeds of doubt discounting impairment as the reason Nelson was driving eastbound in the westbound lane of I-80 that evening, suggesting instead that his poor performance on a standard impairment test was because of the adrenaline pumping through him because of the crash.
He asked Trooper Corey McCallister, who responded to the scene that night and was the only witness to testify at Wednesday’s preliminary hearing, if the impact of Nelson’s black 2014 Dodge Ram 3500 truck hitting off-center head-on with an infinity passenger car was a “pretty abrupt impact?”
McCallister said it was enough to trigger the airbags.
“Would that have impacted Mr. Nelson’s head or face?” Bennett asked. He followed that up with, “Any reason to believe his head didn’t snap forward and back?”
McCallister said that while he’s not a doctor, there was a good indicator Nelson wasn’t suffering from a concussion, beyond his trained observations: Nelson told troopers repeatedly he felt OK and didn’t want medical treatment.
A Horrific Scene
That exchange came after McCallister described in sometimes graphic detail what he found when he rolled up on the scene of the crash near the town of Sinclair a little before 7 p.m. that Sunday evening.
It was dark and he found himself navigating a chaotic, debris-strewn stretch of highway. Along with Nelson’s truck and the Infinity, a FexEx semitrailer also was hit, and another tractortrailer was forced across the median, hit a Ford F-150 truck and both burst into flames.
After checking on the three people who were in the Infinity, who suffered minor injuries but declined medical treatment, McCallister said he was informed there was someone in the cab of the burning semi, an MS Freight truck.
Guided by Carbon County Attorney Sarah Chavez Harkins, the trooper said he grabbed a fire extinguisher from his patrol car and ran over to the burning MS Freight truck.
There he saw the driver, identified as A.C., in the cab.
“I saw her head was on fire and plastic was dripping down around her head,” McCallister said.
He used the extinguisher on her and the flames in the cab, then firefighters extracted A.C. Once outside and as personnel loaded her into an ambulance, he said he saw in more detail the extent of her injuries.
“I observed about three-quarters of her face was burned almost completely off,” he said, adding that the rest of her body also was “severely burned.”
He observed A.C. coming in and out of consciousness with burns to her head, face, neck, back, torso and rear. Later, he said he learned she also suffered third-degree burns to her lungs and throat and that she’s now in stable in an induced coma in a Greeley, Colorado, burn center.
It was after responding to A.C. in the MS Frieght truck that McCallister said he learned that besides the one person from the Ford F-150 who died when thrown from the vehicle, four others had burned in the truck.
He said he didn’t know anyone else was in the truck before then because it was burning, but after the flames had been knocked down he could see inside.
“I observed severely burned bodies,” McCallister said. “I couldn’t even begin to tell how many people. I (estimated) three or four others in that vehicle.”
Those bodies, along with the one thrown from the truck, were five young people from Arkansas ages 18 to 23 identified as Suzy and Andrea Prime, Salomon Correa, Magdalene “Maggie” Franco and Ava Luplow.
Less than two days after the crash, Suzy and Andrea’s father, Phil Prime, said he forgives Nelson for causing the crash and doesn’t have vengeance in his heart.
“We could become angry and we could become bitter, but all those things destroy you,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “Those feelings don’t help you.”
Prosecution Moves Forward
While Phil Prime may forgive the actions that took his daughters, the state of Wyoming intends to try Nelson on five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide for the deaths of the five from Arkansas and driving under the influence of a controlled substance causing serious bodily injury for A.C.
He also faces charges for reckless endangering for the drivers and passengers in the other involved vehicles, along with driving the wrong way on a divided highway and with a suspended license from a previous DUI conviction.
Along with detailing for Carbon County Circuit Court Judge Susan Stipe what he saw that night, McCallister and Chavez Harkins also discussed updates to the findings of a crash recreation investigation.
While it was initially thought that A.C. had swerved her truck to avoid becoming part of the original crash, dashcam video from the cab of her truck shows otherwise, McCallister said.
In the video, he said it shows A.C. hit a large piece of debris from the initial collision, screamed, then lost control. That’s what took her across the median, into the eastbound lanes of I-80 and impact the F-150.
That change in the narrative of how the crash unfolded doesn’t make a difference, Chavez Harkins said.
Had Nelson not been driving the wrong way on the interstate at that time, there’s no way A.C. could’ve hit any debris, lost control of her truck or hit the F-150, killing all inside, she said.
“There’s no evidence that there was any other reason” for that to happen, Chavez Harkins said.
Was He Impaired?
Much of McAllister’s testimony, along with Bennett’s cross-examination, focused on details about how the trooper determined Nelson was impaired.
While authorities drew blood for testing, those results haven’t come back yet, the trooper said.
McAllister detailed his training in observing impairment, along with the numerous tests and observations he did with Nelson. All point to impairment, he said.
Nelson admitted to using cocaine “five or six” years earlier and that he had used meth the night before the crash.
He also testified about Nelson’s demeanor after arresting him and taking him to Carbon County Memorial Hospital for the blood test.
“I observed he would go in and out of consciousness” while in the back of his patrol vehicle, the trooper said.
His body would slump “in an uncontrolled state,” then Nelson would “wake back up and raise his head again” when going over a bump.
A Rawlins Police Department officer trained as a drug recognition expert also observed Nelson at the hospital.
“His opinion was (Nelson was on) a stimulant and narcotic analgesic,” McCallister testified.
Bennett questioned McCallister about whether the perceived impairment he observed couldn’t be explained by Nelson having just been in a serious crash.
“What about somebody who was just involved in an accident?” he asked about how that would influence field impairment tests.
Case Moves Forward
In the end, Bennett admitted that with a low threshold of proof needed to advance a case beyond a preliminary hearing, many of his arguments on Nelson’s behalf are “going to boil down to proximate cause and to what are and are not forseeable events.”
He said those arguments are “just quite simply for another court.”
Nelson remains in the Carbon County jail on a $500,000 cash-only bond.