For at least 16 seconds -- enough time to travel more than a quarter of a mile on the freeway -- truck driver Jason Styrbicky had his eyes off the road, searching for an energy drink that had fallen at his feet, a judge concluded.
By the time Styrbicky found the can and looked up, it was too late to stop his truck from plowing into traffic stopped on Interstate 35 in Lakeville because of road construction.
Two women and a fetus died in the May 2010 crash and a million bees were released from another truck that was damaged, hindering rescue efforts as motorists and emergency workers were stung.
On Wednesday, Styrbicky was found guilty of three counts of criminal vehicular homicide and one count of careless driving in Dakota County District Court.
Killed in the crash were Pamela Brinkhaus, 50, of Elko New Market; Kari Rasmussen, 24, of St. Anthony, and Rasmussen's 8-week-old fetus.
The convictions carry a recommended sentence of up to 48 months in prison for each death, which in this case would total 12 years. Sentencing is set for July 31.
Styrbicky's attorney, Mark McDonough, said Wednesday that he does not plan to appeal the conviction but will ask for a lesser sentence, possibly as little as probation or a year in the Dakota County jail.
"This is such a profoundly tragic case," McDonough said outside the courtroom. "I know that Jason is sorry for what happened to these women and their families. He certainly never intended to cause anyone any harm."
But Judge Karen Asphaug, in rendering her verdict Wednesday morning, said Styrbicky's actions went well beyond negligence or inattentiveness.
She noted that there were indications that Styrbicky might have had his eyes off the road for almost a minute -- about a mile, at freeway speeds -- before the crash on May 24, 2010.
Also, she said, Styrbicky's story changed, from initially telling the State Patrol he looked away for 30 seconds or more to testifying during the trial that it was more likely just six to 10 seconds.
"The court finds that [Styrbicky's] testimony is not credible and is not supported by other evidence presented at trial," Asphaug concluded. "Defendant was driving his motor vehicle in a grossly negligent manner immediately prior to and at the time of the crash."
Didn't see warning signs
Styrbicky testified that he did not see warning signs that construction was ahead. The first warning sign was posted eight-tenths of a mile before the construction, suggesting that he was not looking at the road for a long while before the crash, the judge said.
Styrbicky testified last week that he was wearing his glasses and was not overly fatigued after driving his food-delivery truck about 12 hours. That contradicted police reports that he was not wearing eyeglasses at the time of the crash.
Apart from the deaths, the crash smashed open many of the crates of bees on the truck in front of the victims' vehicles. An estimated 12 million bees were being transported and about 1 million of them were released in the crash.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, as he has done in other cases where inattentive driving caused a death, aggressively pursued the case, even though there was no proof of impaired driving due to drugs or alcohol.
Backstrom was not available for direct comment on Wednesday afternoon, but he issued a statement expressing sympathy for the victims.
"We will make a decision on what sentence to seek after reviewing the pre-sentence investigation," Backstrom said in his statement.
The state had to meet a high legal standard to prove felony vehicular homicide. The prosecutor had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was operating a vehicle in a grossly negligent fashion, which usually involves extraordinary misbehavior, such as drunken driving or extreme speeding.
The truck Styrbicky was driving had a governor that limited its speed to 68 mph.
The families of those killed in the crash have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against Styrbicky and his employer, a Wisconsin trucking firm.
The families did not respond to requests for comment.
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281