For nearly a year, Todd Brinkhaus had wondered how a trucker could have slammed at freeway speed into vehicles stopped in traffic, resulting in a chain-reaction crash that killed his wife and another driver who was pregnant.

The crash, on Interstate 35 near County Road 70 in Lakeville on May 24, 2010, released clouds of bees from a truck involved in the series of collisions, creating a major obstacle for rescue workers.

On Monday, Brinkhaus and others got some answers with the grand-jury indictment in Hastings of trucker Jason Styrbicky on three felony counts of vehicular homicide, including for the death of an 8-week-old fetus.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he believed it was the first homicide prosecution in the county involving a victim so early in gestation.

Prosecutors disclosed Monday that the trucker was reaching down to his cab floor for an energy drink and when he looked up, he saw traffic had stopped for construction and couldn't brake in time.

He also wasn't wearing his corrective lenses, authorities said.

Styrbicky, 37, of Buffalo, Minn., has been indicted in the deaths of Pamela Brinkhaus, 50, of Elko New Market; Kari Rasmussen, 24, St. Anthony, and of her fetus.

Minnesota law recognizes the killing of a fetus at any stage of prenatal development as homicide. It does not address the controversial issue of when a fetus is capable of living outside the womb.

The case also is unusual in that no drugs or alcohol were involved, as with most vehicular homicide cases.

Backstrom said he took the case to a grand jury to determine whether there was gross negligence, which can be grounds for vehicular homicide. Styrbicky is also charged with careless driving.

In a similar case, Brittany Mertz, 21, is accused of being grossly negligent in a 2008 crash in Inver Grove Heights. One woman and two children were killed and two other kids injured on Hwy. 52. Mertz faces three counts of criminal vehicular homicide, two counts of criminal vehicular operation, careless driving and reckless driving.

Charges cast light on case

Watching the charges against Styrbicky were civil attorneys hired by survivors of those killed in Lakeville.

Pamela Brinkhaus' husband, Todd, and other loved ones have been in "absolute confusion" as they awaited an explanation on how someone driving 68 miles per hour could smash into stopped cars, said his attorney, Jim Carey.

John Rasmussen, whose pregnant wife was killed, also filed a wrongful-death suit in Dakota County District Court.

Both suits name Styrbicky and his employer, Reinhart FoodService and Reinhart Transportation of La Crosse, Wis.

Prosecutors said the women were stopped behind a semitrailer truck that was carrying dozens of crates of bees about 11 a.m. that day.

Styrbicky had been driving all night, and troopers later said he appeared too fatigued to be driving.

His truck, which was in good working condition, was going 68 miles per hour as he approached the stopped vehicles.

"Despite passing an electronic MnDOT warning sign about a lane closure ahead, Styrbicky did not brake or slow his semi-tractor and rammed into the rear of both cars, crushing them between his vehicle and the semi-tractor and trailer containing the bees," prosecutors said Monday.

Millions of bees were released, hampering rescuers. The trucker who was transporting the bees provided protective suits to emergency workers.

In Hastings on Monday, Judge Martha Simonett set bail at $100,000 for Styrbicky. His next court date is July 25.

After the criminal case is over, civil suits can move forward.

Kent Rossi, an Owatonna, Minn., attorney who represents John Rasmussen, said the family has wondered to what extent an employer puts an employee in a position to drive for so many hours and grow fatigued.

Backstrom, however, said it's up to individual truckers to not operate negligently.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017