A Minnesota landscape contractor was charged Friday with four counts of vehicular homicide after an unsecured boulder weighing 1,100 pounds allegedly tumbled from his dump truck and rolled over an oncoming car, killing two women in a Twin Cities suburb.
Joseph P. Czeck, 33, of Hastings, Minnesota, is charged with two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide for causing a collision and then leaving the scene of an accident July 9 in Rosemount, about 25 miles south of St. Paul.
He is charged with two additional felony counts of vehicular homicide through gross negligence.
Using a search warrant, police arrested Czeck two days after the crash at a relative’s house in the nearby city of Inver Grove Heights, where they found the truck in an outbuilding.
The horrific tragedy that killed 67-year-old Jean Christiansen and her 32-year-old daughter, Jena Helene Christiansen, of Shoreview, Minnesota, has left many landscape contractors in the area scrambling to make sure their loads are well secured, Rosemount Police Chief Mitchell Scott says.
“This could have been prevented,” Scott tells Equipment World.
All too often, he adds, people are in a hurry, figuring they’re just going a short distance – so they’re driving off without properly securing everything from UTVs and ATVs to mattresses, lawn mowers, brush, even boulders.
“If the whole load would have been strapped down properly, then this crash would have never happened,” the police chief says.
Authorities say accident reconstruction by the Minnesota State Patrol will look at velocity. The boulder tumbled out of his truck after Czeck drove over deep railroad tracks, and the inertia of the boulder apparently kept it moving ahead, in the same direction as the truck. It smashed into the windshield of the oncoming Toyota and went through the car.
With serious head injuries, both women died as first responders rendered aid.
Contractors, local businesses helped police
Shortly after the crash, Flint Hills Refinery of Rosemount had contacted police about the images of the truck and the driver on their surveillance camera video. They show the truck after one of the boulders in it bounced out.
A photo taken from that video proved to be crucial to finding the dump truck driver, the chief said.
“Unfortunately, for us, we couldn’t really decipher the logo,” Scott explained. “But knowing we had the photo, knowing there’s a lot of construction sites around the area, a lot of landscaping going on, a lot of developments being developed in the area as well, the officers went back to old-fashioned police work and started going to different development sites.”
Scott said as police showed the photo at sites, contractors and workers were “extremely helpful.”
Finally, officers found one development where trees were being removed and the land readied for construction. Showing the photo, police asked the contractors and workers there if they recognized the truck.
“Yeah, we know who that was; they were here, actually,” Scott says police were told.
That gave police the lead they needed to start tracking down Czeck, the police chief says.
Charges say witness saw rock bouncing, “glass in the air”
The criminal complaint, filed Friday afternoon as the contractor appeared in Dakota County District Court, alleges the tragedy unfolded this way:
The accident happened shortly after 4:30 p.m. July 9 as a 2002 Toyota Avalon was northbound on a back road – Rich Valley Road – south of 125th Street.
Officers dispatched to the scene found the car partially in the southbound lane and partially on the shoulder. Behind the car, in the lane of travel, was the boulder.
Officers from the Minnesota State Patrol and other agencies responded. A witness from a nearby business told officers of seeing a dump truck or flatbed truck traveling south on Rich Valley Boulevard, then seeing “a rock bouncing down the roadway and glass in the air.”
Officers began reviewing the surveillance video from businesses neighboring the crash scene and determined that a truck carrying big, unsecured boulders had been traveling south on Rich Valley Boulevard.
“After the car crossed some railroad tracks, an unsecured boulder flew out the back of the truck,” the complaint says. “The boulder bounced into the southbound lane, crossed the centerline and bounced into the northbound lane, where it crashed into the windshield of the car driven by Karen Christiansen. The truck did not stop at the scene.”
The driver never notified law enforcement, the charges say.
After driving nearly a mile, the driver pulled over and parked in a commercial driveway on the west side of Rich Valley Boulevard. After remaining there about two minutes, the driver turned around the truck and remained there another five minutes, the refinery’s video shows.
A person is seen walking around the outside of the truck. A witness drove by and later told police of seeing a man outside the truck, strapping a large boulder down in the back of the truck.
“Surveillance video prior to the crash appears to show the truck carrying unstrapped boulders,” the complaint says.
Once police located the contractor who knew Joe Czeck, he told them that he had loaded a large boulder into a truck owned by Czeck about 3 p.m. that Monday. Police showed him a photo of the truck, and the contractor confirmed that was the truck onto which he had loaded the boulder.
The contractor also told him that “Joe” was going to come back about 5 p.m. to pick up more boulders, but he never showed up. The contractor said he called Joe about 5:30 p.m. and Joe told him a rock had fallen out of the back of his truck and he would not be coming back that day.
To find Czeck, police located several possible addresses where he might be and monitored them. On Wednesday, July 11, they executed a search warrant at the home of one of his relatives and found him inside. Entering a secured outbuilding, they spotted the truck.
Czeck refused to provide a statement and was taken to the Dakota County Jail, where he was held without bail until an initial court appearance Friday.
A judge set bail at $30,000 with conditions, such as no driving without insurance, or $70,000 without conditions. Czeck’s next court appearance is an evidentiary hearing on Oct. 4.
Each of the four felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide carries a maximum sentence of zero to 10 years in prison and a fine that could range from $6,000 to $20,000.
Czeck’s attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.