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Published: Friday, 7/18/2003

I-75 crash claims Michigan girl

BY CHRISTINA HALL AND DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Jessica Ortega was everything a mother could want in a 9-year-old girl: a good student, an athlete, a dancer, a social butterfly.

But the soon-to-be fourth grader's life was cut short less than an hour from home Wednesday when a truck driver who Toledo police said fell asleep at the wheel of his rig crashed into the back of her grandmother's vehicle.

“She was the life of this house, of the block, of her school,” said her aunt, who declined to be identified, from the girl's house in Allen Park, Mich., just south of Detroit.

While Jessica's family mourns her loss and deals with the injuries to her grandmother, Pamela Kenaiou, and Ms. Kenaiou's fianc , Charles “Chuck” Baker, the tractor-trailer driver sits in a Lucas County jail charged with the girl's death.

David Patrick Jepson, whose last name also has been spelled Jepsen, 46, of St. Colomban, Que., is being held in lieu of $100,000 bond on the felony charge of aggravated vehicular homicide. He declined comment after an arraignment yesterday in Toledo Municipal Court.

At least four people remain hospitalized after the 14-vehicle accident on northbound I-75 near South Avenue. At least three others, including two children, were treated at area hospitals. Authorities said 10 people were sent to three hospitals.

Jessica's aunt said Ms. Kenaiou, 48, was in the critical care unit at Medical College of Ohio Hospitals. Ms. Kenaiou's fianc , Mr. Baker, was in stable condition at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, the aunt said.

Tina Hoffman of Temperance was in fair condition at Toledo Hospital. Another driver, Max Myers of Searles Road, was in fair condition at MCO Hospitals.

Police said Mr. Jepson was driving north when he fell asleep and his semi hit several vehicles in the rear that were stopped or slowing for upcoming construction, causing a chain-reaction accident.

Jessica, her grandmother, and her grandmother's fianc , were driving home from a vacation in Tennessee when their vehicle was hit by the semi. Jessica, an only child, died of head injuries in St. Vincent less than an hour later.

Police Lt. Kevin Keel, head of the department's traffic bureau, said Mr. Jepson's log book is being inspected by local and state authorities. He didn't know how long Mr. Jepson had been on the road.

Domenic Agostino, operations manager for Mr. Jepson's employer - Montreal International Logistics - said Mr. Jepson's load of frozen food was picked up Tuesday in Montreal and was destined for Mount Juliet, Tenn.

He said the company doesn't know why Mr. Jepson was traveling north on I-75 and has been unable to reach him after receiving a call in which he reported the accident.

Jessica Ortega of Allen Park, Mich., was remembered by family members as a good student and athlete. Jessica Ortega of Allen Park, Mich., was remembered by family members as a good student and athlete.
KEESE Enlarge

A company manager was en route to Toledo to meet with Mr. Jepson. The trucking company is based in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard and operates 20 trucks, almost entirely in cross-border business.

Mr. Agostino said Mr. Jepson is an American citizen who has “landed immigrant” - equivalent to green card - status in Canada. He's worked for the company for about a year after the U.S. company he previously drove for went bankrupt and closed.

Mr. Jepson's pre-employment screening showed a clean driving record and he has had no prior accidents while driving for MIL.

Lieutenant Keel also was unaware of any prior infractions.

Mr. Agostino said there was no chance Mr. Jepson had been on the road longer than allowed. “He was definitely not over-logged. We're a professional company. Everything is done strictly by the book,” he said.

Mr. Agostino said he is at a loss for words about the situation.

“Our sympathies go out to the family of the young girl. Our bosses are just shattered over this. When you have children of your own, it makes you think,” he said.

Police are investigating how fast Mr. Jepson was driving. There is no indication drugs or alcohol were involved, although federal law requires Mr. Jepson to submit to a urine test, which he did, the lieutenant said.

He didn't know if Mr. Jepson was wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, which closed northbound I-75 until yesterday morning.

In response to the crash, the Ohio Department of Transportation will place signs along northbound I-75, south of Perrysburg, urging traffic to avoid the downtown construction zone and revise the message on a programmable sign at Wales Road in Northwood.

Department officials also will ask contractor S.E. Johnson to concentrate its efforts on the stretch of I-75 between Nebraska Avenue and 14th Street that has two lanes in each direction so single-lane zones there can be eliminated as quickly as possible, spokesman Joe Rutherford said.

Lieutenant Keel said two officers are stationed in the work areas each night. No extra patrols are planned.

The crash was the second fatal work-zone related collision in the Toledo area in three days. On Monday, a Lapeer, Mich., man died when his sport-utility vehicle ran into the rear of a semi that slowed for a construction backup on northbound U.S. 23 in Monroe County.

Nighttime resurfacing began on I-75 through downtown Toledo on July 7, with work starting at 7 p.m. nightly except Saturday and ending by 6 a.m. each morning.

Signs advising motorists of the construction already were posted starting two miles in advance, including a flashing message sign near Wales Road. The sign has been changed to specify that a lane is closed one mile away.

Two more message signs have been posted between Bowling Green and Perrysburg suggesting I-475 as an alternate route. Officials hope truckers and other commercial drivers will go the long way to avoid backups, Mr. Rutherford said.

ODOT officials already had decided to suspend the I-75 paving during the nights of July 25 through 27 when I-280 will be closed.

Traffic Sgt. Al Papenfus said there have been a few fender-benders in the work areas as well as frustrated drivers going the wrong way on ramps to avoid backups.

But police can only do so much. Drivers must slow down, become aware of work areas, and stay farther away from the vehicle in front of them, he said.

Jessica's aunt said a closer eye also should be kept on semi drivers.



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