The trucker who was attacked after driving into a massive protest on the Interstate 35W bridge after the killing of George Floyd was charged Thursday with two criminal counts from the May 31 incident.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office charged 35-year-old Bogdan Vechirko of Otsego with threats of violence, a felony, and criminal vehicular operation, a gross misdemeanor, saying the driver admitted to investigators that he was “kind of in a hurry” and the investigation showed he sought to “scare” the protesters out of his path.
Vechirko drove onto the bridge as hundreds of pedestrians protested the death of Floyd, who had died six days earlier in the custody of Minneapolis police. Vechirko said he was returning from a fuel delivery in south Minneapolis and didn’t intend to drive into the protest or aim to hurt anyone.
The criminal complaint said investigators reviewed cellphone videos showing that Vechirko should have known something was occurring on the bridge because “in addition to the large crowd, there were multiple vehicles stopped on I-35W northbound as the road approached the bridge and that a number of vehicles were driving the wrong direction up an entrance ramp.”
In a re-enactment with a similar semi-truck, investigators found Vechirko’s “line of sight would have given him sufficient time to stop his truck after viewing the crowd.” But he didn’t stop until someone stumbled in his path, the complaint said.
Mark Solheim, Vechirko’s attorney, said that when the driver saw the crowd on the bridge, he “relied on his professional instinct and training to avoid a hard brake that could have jackknifed the truck and could have seriously injured or killed thousands of people, and instead slowed his vehicle while maneuvering through the parted crowd.”
When a protester fell to the side of the tractor, Vechirko stopped out of caution and was attacked by protesters who vandalized his truck, Solheim said.
The driver’s intent and actions before the incident have been a point of debate with questions as to whether he drove around barricades to confront protesters.
Minnesota Department of Transportation video later showed that Vechirko entered Interstate 94 from the Hennepin/Lyndale ramp, which was not barricaded. Vechirko continued eastbound to merge onto the northbound lanes of the I-35W bridge where the protesters were gathered.
Solheim said Vechirko’s actions averted needless injury and death when he was “confronted with an unforeseeable emergency with thousands of people obstructing an open interstate.”
Based on social media video, an individual in the crowd appears to have pointed a handgun at Vechirko and to have discharged two rounds into the tractor’s front tire, Solheim said. The videos make clear that Vechirko was faced with a terrifying situation and tried to prevent injuries or death, he added.
“It is difficult to comprehend how Mr. Vechirko’s conduct has now resulted in him being charged with a felony,” Solheim said.
The criminal complaint said “at least” one protester suffered abrasions as she jumped to get out of the truck’s path.
The charges five months after the incident came as somewhat of a surprise because of the confusion surrounding the incident. Some protesters claimed Vechirko veered left into the crowd rather than away from it, and state officials gave conflicting public statements.
State Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington at first seemed to exonerate Vechirko, saying he “panicked” and wasn’t aiming for the protesters. The next day, Harrington said, “we are certainly getting to the right charge that holds him accountable.”
State officials also tried to figure out why barricades weren’t in place to prevent the truck and several other vehicles from coming upon the crowd making its way from U.S. Bank Stadium onto the bridge over the Mississippi River.
Harrington said the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) had been directed to seal off interstate ramps by 5 p.m. to protect the marchers.
On that Sunday afternoon, Vechirko was returning from a fuel delivery to a south Minneapolis gas station when he got on Interstate 94 via the Hennepin/Lyndale ramp at 5:44 p.m., a MnDOT spokesman said at the time.
None of the protesters who attacked and injured Vechirko were charged. Vechirko suffered cuts to his face, and his wife told the Star Tribune that his cellphone, wallet and other items in the truck’s cab were stolen.
“The social media videos make clear that Mr. Vechirko was faced with a terrifying situation, yet still made efforts to safely remove himself and his tanker from the situation without catastrophic injuries or death,” Solheim said.
Vechirko is not in custody.