The vehicle that struck and injured Nicole Engelbrecht was traveling 15-20 mph and the driver did not brake until well after impact, an accidents expert testified Wednesday.
So who was the driver? The state trooper who reconstructed the 2007 crash said all fingers point to 45-year-old Richard Kereta. The Putnam man is standing trial this week for numerous felonies in connection with the crash including aggravated driving under the influence.
Master Sgt. Bruce Schultz testified he arrived at the scene on Nov. 30, 2007, on a little-used rural road in Senachwine Township. Though it was dark and Engelbrecht had already been whisked away to a hospital, Schultz testified there was sufficient evidence to recreate the crash.
A Toyota Forerunner had struck a person - Schultz found flesh embedded in the treads of the right front tire - while traveling at a maximum speed of 20 mph, he said. Behind the vehicle were "rolling" treadmarks indicating no application of brakes prior to impact.
More significantly for prosecutors, the evidence also showed a motorist was operating the vehicle. Though Kereta had at one point told police the vehicle was coasting or not operated at the time of impact, Schultz said there was a driver at the wheel and it had to be Kereta.
"No one else could be driving that vehicle," Schultz said firmly.
In reaching his conclusion, Schultz noted there were no other people or vehicles in the vicinity, Kereta placed the ensuing 911 call seeking help and, according to a former Henry police officer's testimony, Kereta tried to press the Toyota's keys into Engelbrecht's hand while she lay unconscious.
Prosecutors rested soon after Schultz presented his findings, which could go to a Putnam County jury for deliberations as early as this afternoon.
Besides the reconstruction, jurors also will consider a blood test showing Kereta could have been intoxicated at the time of the accident as well as a transcript of his partially inaudible 911 call.
Engelbrecht, 19, of Putnam still is unable to speak after being hit by a vehicle registered in her name and Kereta's on Nov. 30, 2007.
In keyboard-assisted testimony delivered Tuesday, Engelbrecht said she had been driving them toward her home when she and Kereta had an argument. She said she put the truck in neutral and engaged the emergency brake before exiting to walk down the lane back to her house.
She testified Kereta exited the passenger side of the vehicle, where he had been sitting because his driver's license had been revoked, and then entered the driver's side. That was the last thing she remembered; the impact sent her into a six-month coma that left her temporarily paralyzed.
It fell to police and prosecutors to show whether Kereta was driving at the time she was hit - and whether Kereta was intoxicated as he took the wheel.
Deputy Chad Haage testified that he briefly interviewed Kereta at the Putnam County Sheriff's Department a short time after the accident. Kereta was distraught over Engelbrecht's injuries and seemed to break down in the taped interview. Yet when Haage accused Kereta of running her over he denied it angrily and the interview came to a halt.
"And did things go downhill from there?" asked special prosecutor Charles Zalar.
"Yes, sir, they did," Haage replied.
"Did he call you a liar?" Zalar pressed.
"Yes, sir, he did."
"And did you call him a liar?"
"Yes, sir, I did," Haage answered.
During the heated exchange, Haage testified, Kereta drew close enough that Haage could smell alcohol. Later, Kereta was brought to St. Margaret's Hospital in Spring Valley to submit to a blood draw, though not until some 3Â½ hours had elapsed since the accident was reported.
Dareea Paiva, a forensic toxicologist with the state police crime lab in Springfield, testified Kereta's sample came back showing a blood-alcohol concentration of .038, less than half the state threshold for driving under the influence.
However, Paiva also said she considered the elapsed time and calculated what Kereta's BAC would have been at the time of the accident. She testified Kereta's BAC was somewhere between .073 to 0.108 when police were summoned.
Haage tried to corroborate that possibility, testifying that police recovered an empty 12-pack of Busch beer and five empty beer cans from the truck. Tuesday, Engelbrecht's father testified Kereta drank six beers in a span of 15 minutes or less - and this on top of three drinks consumed while trapping raccoons earlier in the day.
The defense moved quickly Wednesday to show Kereta wasn't drinking as much, or for as long, as the state's witnesses allege. Three witnesses for Kereta testified they saw no signs of intoxication during in-person or telephone encounters with Kereta the day of the accident.
Bank teller Melinda Jesse said Kereta appeared normal when he came into Henry State Bank between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., while Kereta's ex-wife and 15-year-old son both said he sounded normal in phone messages or conversations between 2 and 6 p.m.
Defense attorney Bob Nolan advised Judge Kevin Galley that Kereta "does intend" to testify in his defense when the defense resumes its case in chief this morning. Galley stated previously the case would be concluded today.