Tour-bus driver arraigned on charges related to fatal 2015 crash
Almost three years after a fatal crash on the Seward Highway, 63-year-old Charles Curtis was arraigned Thursday on a charge of criminally negligent homicide and 11 counts of assault.
Troopers say Curtis was behind the wheel of a Premier Alaska Tours bus that rear-ended a truck stopped northbound in a line of three vehicles making a left turn into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The bus then swerved into the oncoming lane, striking a GMC Yukon driven by 53-year-old John Zollner III; Zollner died at the scene. At least three people were critically injured, and Curtis was taken to a hospital by a ground ambulance.
Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an email that the circumstances of the crash made it suspicious to troopers "from the beginning." Investigators declined to answer questions about whether Curtis was impaired or distracted during the crash or why it took nearly three years to file charges.
Prosecutors say the delay can be partially attributed to litigation over the investigation. Troopers obtained a search warrant for mechanical and vehicle inspection records for all of Premier Alaska's tour buses--which the company challenged in court, arguing the state didn't have probable cause for such a broad warrant.
The case ended up in Alaska's Court of Appeals where the state argued, "Premier's effort to quash the warrant is an attempt to preclude law enforcement from thoroughly investigating a homicide. Premier is no different from the multitude of defendants against whom search warrants are issued who do not want to reveal information that might be used to prosecute them."
According to public court documents, Curtis told troopers he saw the stopped truck and tried to stop the tour bus, but the brakes didn't work. Troopers noted the absence of brake marks on the road from the bus prior to the crash location.
The public court documents surrounding the legal battle over the search warrant infer the state was planning to prosecute either Curtis or Premier Alaska with criminally negligent homicide but wasn't immediately sure which party to charge.
"Judge Washington exercised her discretion/judgement and found that the affidavit set forth an adequate basis for a reasonable prudent believe that the sought after records are evidence of the crime of criminally negligent homicide [...] and/or evidence that tends to show that Alaska Premier Tours Inc. committed the offense of criminally negligent homicide [...] The sought after records could show that the tour bus involved in the collision as well as all Premiere Alaska Tours, Inc. tour buses operated in 2015, was scrupulously maintained and inspected and thereby indicate the driver was not being truthful about his attempting to apply the brakes and thereby would provide information inculpatory of the driver. Alternatively, the sought after records could show that the tour bus involved in the collision, as well as the Premier Alaska Tours, Inc. tour buses operated in 2015 overall, was poorly maintained and inspected and thereby indicating the driver was being truthful about his attempting to apply the brakes and thereby would provide information inculpatory of Premier Alaska Tours, Inc. Either way, the records are of significant importance in this fatality collision investigation."
The state eventually backed down, choosing to withdraw the warrant in question and issue a new, more limited search warrant based on "new information."
Peters said the assault charges against Curtis include two counts of second-degree assault for Zollner's wife, Amy Zollner, and her daughter Elko Benefield who were injured in the same vehicle with him. Nine additional counts of fourth-degree assault were charged in connection with "other people injured during the incident."
The wreck was among several high-profile crashes on the Seward which prompted discussion between troopers and Anchorage police over who would patrol the highway’s densely trafficked section north of the Kenai Peninsula, which police began to cover last fall.
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