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MOAB — A California man who was originally charged with aggravated human smuggling after a deadly crash on I-70 in Utah has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
Elvis J. Quintanilla-Vasquez, his left hand still bandaged from the loss of several fingers in the May 16 crash, pleaded guilty Tuesday in 7th District Court to one count of negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor.
Judge Lyle Anderson accepted the plea and imposed a suspended 364-day jail term, ordered Quintanilla-Vasquez to pay a $720 fine and placed him on probation for two years.
Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald told the court that Quintanilla-Vasquez engaged in criminally negligent behavior when he decided to drive a Toyota minivan that didn't have enough seat belts for all of the people riding inside.
"The van was overloaded," the prosecutor said, noting that two of the eight passengers were sitting on the van's floor when Quintanilla-Vasquez hit a bump in the road, veered off I-70 and crashed.
Four men inside the van died at the scene. Quintanilla-Vasquez, 36, and three other men in the van were taken to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, for treatment. A woman who was in the van when it crashed left the area before Utah Highway Patrol troopers arrived and has not been found.
Fitzgerald initially charged Quintanilla-Vasquez with four counts of aggravated human smuggling, a second-degree felony; three counts of human smuggling, a third-degree felony; and one count of improper lane travel, a class C misdemeanor. The charges were based on forged documents found at the crash site and initial interviews with the survivors, the prosecutor said.
On Tuesday, however, Fitzgerald told the court that a "lengthy, thorough investigation" of the crash showed Quintanilla-Vasquez was not moving the van's passengers against their will but was driving them to jobs in the Midwest.
This was a very tragic accident, and Mr. Quintanilla will live with it forever. I think given all of the circumstances, given what happened, everybody involved felt that this was a fair resolution and a just resolution.
–Cara Tangaro, defense attorney
"It was not a situation where they were not free to leave, or being coerced or in some kind of servitude," the prosecutor said.
Both Fitzgerald and defense attorney Cara Tangaro noted that Quintanilla-Vasquez called 911 immediately after the crash. He remained at the scene when the female passenger fled, Tangaro said, and helped the other crash victims until emergency responders arrived.
"This was a very tragic accident, and Mr. Quintanilla will live with it forever," Tangaro said. "I think given all of the circumstances, given what happened, everybody involved felt that this was a fair resolution and a just resolution."
Reaching a deal in the criminal case against him isn't necessarily the end of Quintanilla-Vasquez's legal woes. The negligent homicide conviction could possibly jeopardize his immigration status as a permanent resident, the judge said.
"I don't pretend to understand what the laws are for immigration," Anderson said from the bench. "And I think it's impossible to predict which of those laws will be enforced in today's circumstances, so I think you need to understand, and I'm telling you, they might deport you if you are not a citizen of the United States."