Utah dump truck driver could spend up to 45 years in prison for killing 6 in DUI crash

This Oct.2018, mug shot released by the Wasatch County Sheriff shows Jamie Don McKenzie, 41 in Heber City, Utah. (Wasatch County Sheriff via AP)

Heber • She said Efrain Cardenas was the perfect father.

He was kind and caring and could be tough when he needed to be. Most of all, he was always there for her and his children and grandchildren, his daughter Viridiana said Wednesday in front of a judge at the Wasatch County Courthouse.

That is, until he wasn’t.

And it didn’t have to be that way, Viridiana Cardenas told those gathered in the courtroom. That’s why she said she hates Jamie McKenzie.

McKenzie didn’t have to drink whiskey and take pills that October day. He didn’t have to get behind the wheel of a dump truck loaded with dirt and drive it. He didn’t have to speed down the highway and veer across the median and hit a Jeep and then a truck.

But he did. And six people died, including Viridiana Cardenas’ father. Two others were injured.

“I’m so sorry to his family,” Viridiana Cardenas said through tears, “but I wish he never gets out of jail.”

She may just get her wish, because McKenzie was sentenced Wednesday to three consecutive sentences of 1 to 15 years in prison. If he receives the maximum sentence, the 42-year-old could be behind bars for up to 45 years.

Before his sentencing, McKenzie told the courtroom audience he was sorry for what he did, and that he hopes other alcoholics see the consequences of his actions and change their lives.

“Words cannot express the shame and guilt I feel,” he said.

On Oct. 19, Cardenas, 62, and five others were killed when McKenzie drove a dump truck he was using for work across the State Route 40 median near Heber, breaking through concrete and wire barriers and landing on top of an oncoming pickup, apparently killing all inside instantly, Trooper Jonathon Boyd of the Utah Highway Patrol wrote in a probable cause statement that day. The dump truck also hit a Jeep.

This Friday, Oct. 19, 2018 photo provided by the Utah Highway Patrol shows the scene of a head-on collision of a dump truck and a pickup on a state highway near Heber, Utah. State troopers say the dump truck crossed a highway median and collided with the pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction, killing all six men in the pickup in an accident authorities suspect may was caused by alcohol and prescription drugs. (Utah Highway Patrol via AP)

The number of people killed and their identifies weren’t known for hours because injuries were so severe. Boyd said Wednesday in court that troopers had to collect limbs strewn about the scene to figure out how many people were inside the truck.

The deceased were later identified as Allan Nahunarrazola Zuniga, whose age isn’t known, Raul Antonioi Navarro Chacon, 26, Jose Navarro Valle, 24, Franklin Armondo Navarro Chacon, 31, Walter Navarro Chacon, 27, and Cardenas, who was driving. All but Cardenas were Hondurans working in Utah.

Before the sentencing, McKenzie’s attorney, Jessica Peterson, asked for a one-week continuance, saying she needed more time to make sure Judge Jennifer Brown had all possible mitigating factors for McKenzie’s sentence in front of her, such as the results of a psychological exam McKenzie underwent. Peterson also mentioned that McKenzie suffered trauma in his childhood that should be taken into account.

But Brown didn’t grant the motion. And when Peterson asked for McKenzie’s sentences to run concurrently to give McKenzie a chance to rehabilitate, Brown responded later by telling the court she couldn’t envision any sort of mitigating factors that would lessen the sentence she planned to hand down.

This crash and its consequences, she said, were too “severe," too “horrific" for that.

“I don’t believe you’re beyond hope,” Brown told McKenzie after announcing her sentencing. "I don’t believe you don’t have value.”

Wednesday’s sentencing was emotional. Attorneys on both sides of the courtroom shed tears. Family members and friends wept in the audience. At one point, Brown used a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose.

The crash — and the related carnage — also had lasting implications on the troopers who helped clean up after it, Boyd told the courtroom audience. Boyd said he’d investigated more deaths than he can remember in his more-than-a-decade-long career, but this one changed him.

“I just remember the blood on the scene,” he said. "We thought it might have been transmission fluid...but it wasn’t.”

Boyd said he once didn’t think much of the heavy trucks he’d see driving up and down Utah’s highways. Not anymore. Now, he said, he sees them as possible “weapons of mass destruction.”

The sentence Wednesday came after McKenzie pleaded pleaded guilty to three second-degree felony counts of DUI automobile homicide in connection to the Oct. 19 crash. Five other counts — including three other DUI automobile homicide charges and two DUI counts — were dismissed as part of the plea deal, according to court records.

Prosecutor Samuel C. Wade said the state only agreed to dismiss the other counts because the maximum sentence for the three second-degree felony counts would be enough to keep McKenzie in jail for up to 45 years.

As Wade discussed the crash and the “immense” impact it had on all who witnessed it, especially those who lost loved ones, McKenzie hung his head and appeared to squeeze his eyes shut.

After the sentencing, Viridiana Cardenas told reporters she was content with the sentencing, but that it wouldn’t bring her father back.

He’s already missed seeing a granddaughter go to prom. Instead, the teenager modeled her dress for him in front of his grave

He’ll miss another granddaughter’s upcoming quinceañera. And another’s.

The court had told Viridiana Cardenas to write a letter about what her father’s loss meant to her and her family. She read from it for several minutes Wednesday before Brown handed down her sentence, but acknowledged it wasn’t enough to capture the man she lost.

“I never will finish telling you everything I feel," she said. “I have a hole in my heart.”

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