Before the chain-reaction crash that broke his back and killed two fellow motorists, dump truck driver James Stutsman saw lettering on the car that came at him head-on.
Only later did he learn it spelled “Sheriff.”
“That son-of-a-gun sped up like a rocket, and I got out of the way,” Stutsman recalled on the witness stand Monday, reliving the dramatic moments before a July 24, 2018, collision on U.S. 24 east of Colorado Springs that killed Dorothy and Kenneth Wuerfele and hurled Stutsman through his windshield and onto the exposed engine of his dump truck.
His account came as a three-day bench trial began for Quinlan Linebaugh, 30, the former El Paso County sheriff’s deputy accused of causing the deadly crash by trying to pass two vehicles on U.S. 24 without enough time to do so safely. County Judge Laura Findorff is presiding.
What prosecutors called a careless maneuver put Linebaugh’s marked patrol cruiser in the path of Stutsman, 65, who said he had to slam on his brakes, and his truck fishtailed. He swerved into the oncoming lane and collided with a vehicle occupied by Kenneth Wuerfele, 75, and Dorothy Wuerfele, 71, of Peyton. They died in the impact.
“He was crying, saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’” witness Jessica Gifford said of Stutsman as he lay incapacitated on the front of his truck after the crash.
Linebaugh faces two counts of careless driving involving a death, potentially carrying up to 12 months in jail each, and two counts of careless driving resulting in injury. He has pleaded not guilty, arguing he did nothing wrong.
Then a six-year deputy, Linebaugh was fired in August 2018. He was on his way to work when the crash occurred and did not have on his light or sirens, authorities said.
During opening statements, one of his attorneys, Carrie Lynn Slinkard, said there is no evidence that Linebaugh was speeding or behaving carelessly.
She focused on indications that the dump truck’s brakes weren’t adjusted properly and kept the focus on the dump truck driver.
Slinkard also took aim at prosecutors’ claim that Linebaugh’s car clipped the dump truck, saying it was based on a faulty paint transfer analysis.
Gifford, the driver directly behind the Wuerfeles, testified that she and the Wuerfeles were going the speed limit — 65 mph — when Linebaugh’s patrol car came up behind Gifford, following closely enough that she believed he was pulling her over.
“He was really riding my butt,” she said.
When Linebaugh started his pass, the road had a dotted center line and the way ahead was clear.
But in the course of passing her and the Wuerfeles, the line turned solid and the dump truck came into view. In the chaos that followed, she said, she kept her focus on avoiding the dump truck and the Wuerfeles.
Her testimony offered points of support for both prosecution and defense.
Gifford said she believed the crash could have been avoided had the dump truck “maintained” its speed and allowed Linebaugh to complete his pass.
But she also testified that the dump truck had begun to take evasive action before Linebaugh merged back into the drive lane, potentially bolstering Stutsman’s claim he had to act.
During contentious testimony, Stutsman, a 40-year truck driver, lashed out in agitation any time his reactions came under question.
“Me and the car would have hit head on,” he said at one point.
Stutsman initially refused to answer questions from the defense, until Findorff warned him about potential contempt charges.
“If you think I’m the one who caused it, you’re wrong,” he told Slinkard after agreeing to be cross-examined.