Trucker charged with 5 counts reckless homicide in Indiana mistaken-identity crash

Friday, September 1st 2006, 10:15 am
By: News On 6

MARION, Ind. (AP) _ A truck driver was charged Friday with five counts of reckless homicide for a highway crash that crushed a university van and led to the heart-breaking mix-up of two students, one killed in the crash and the other severely injured but alive.

A four-month investigation concluded that trucker Robert F. Spencer acted recklessly when his tractor-trailer rig crossed the Interstate 69 median and collided with the van on April 26, Grant County Prosecutor James Luttrull Jr. said.

Four Taylor University students and a staff member were killed.

The crash drew widespread attention when two families discovered that one of the victims had been misidentified as a survivor. The two young women had similar appearances, and the family of the one who died had kept vigil for five weeks at the bedside of the survivor, Whitney Cerak, believing she was their daughter. Cerak's family had buried 22-year-old Laura VanRyn's body, believing she was Whitney.

Luttrull said investigators had to decide whether Spencer, 37, of the Detroit suburb of Canton Township, Mich., was simply negligent or criminally reckless.

A warrant was issued for his arrest and the charges were filed Friday.

Statements from witnesses and equipment tests suggest Spencer fell asleep at the wheel before his truck, loaded with baking flour, drifted across the median between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

The Michigan secretary of state's office, which regulates drivers in that state, cautioned Spencer last August after he had accumulated five infraction points against his license in two years.

Records show several traffic violations, including two for speeding while driving his truck and three for disobeying traffic controls while driving his personal vehicle. His license was suspended for a day for failing to pay a ticket in 1999.

Cerak, 19, of Gaylord, Mich., was in a coma-like state for several weeks after the crash but has largely recovered. She returned to Taylor this week to begin her sophomore year.