LARAMIE — An Albany County jury convicted a 48-year-old Kansas woman Wednesday of aggravated homicide by vehicle for the 2018 death of 57-year-old Laramie man Vidal Madera after apparently falling asleep behind the wheel.
A jury took only two hours to deliberate before returning a guilty verdict for Tonya Hightower, who faces a prison term of up to 20 years after a three-day trial this week in Albany County’s District Court.
To convict Hightower of “aggravated” vehicular homicide, the jury had to decide Hightower’s decision to drive a tractor-trailer while fatigued constituted “recklessness.”
About a dozen of Madera’s family members were in attendance for the verdict. James, the victim’s son, told the Laramie Boomerang the family is “pretty happy” about the guilty conviction.
“I don’t know exactly what to say, but it feels pretty good,” he said.
Hightower was out on bond before the trial, but Judge Tori Kricken ordered her to be remanded to the custody of the county jail pending sentencing Wednesday.
The defendant will only be released before sentencing if she posts a $50,000 cash bond. Hightower was stoic when the verdict was read Wednesday.
The wreck occurred at about 5 a.m. March 21, 2018, when Hightower was driving a tractor-trailer west on Interstate 80.
She had just entered Albany County when she apparently fell asleep and the semi-truck veered south off the road.
Hightower’s truck drove through the 75-foot median and entered the eastbound lanes, striking Madera’s red sedan.
An evaluation of the tractor-trailer’s trajectory indicated Hightower’s vehicle was traveling 45-57 mph at the time it struck Madera’s sedan.
The sedan was “torn roughly in half,” according to an affidavit from Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Michael Simmons.
After Hightower struck Madera’s sedan, her vehicle continued southwest, leaving the interstate before passing through a wire fence and coming to a stop in a field.
Simmons said Madera suffered “extreme, fatal injuries.” His seatbelt had been fastened at the time of the wreck. When police arrived at the scene, the seatbelt was still buckled even though Madera’s body was not in the vehicle.
When WHP Trooper Dustin Ragon responded to the accident, Hightower told him she “did not know what happened and that she just lost control of the vehicle.”
By Daniel Bendtsen
Laramie Boomerang Via Wyoming News Exchange