William Howard Baker will stand trial for the August 2014 vehicular deaths of a Reno County couple in Great Bend, 20th Judicial District Magistrate Judge Don Alvord ruled following Baker’s preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Shawn Schellenger, 27, and his wife Danielle Schellenger, 33, where riding a motorcycle on Aug. 16, 2014, when the trailer Baker was towing came loose from his pickup and crossed into their lane on West 10th Street. Both died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.
Baker, 60, of Great Bend, is charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter, along with four traffic infractions.
Alvord found probable cause for the allegation that Baker was reckless in his hauling of the trailer. He said testimony and evidence showed he knew there was no safety chain attached, that Kansas law requires such a chain and that he knew the trailer was not in the best condition. There were also no tie-downs holding a lawn mower on the trailer.
“Does this rise to reckless conduct?” Alvord said. “I believe that it does.”
Following the ruling, Baker was arraigned. Through his attorney, Charles O’Hara, he entered a plea of not guilty and requested a jury trial.
The case will likely be heard by District Judge Ron Svaty. No trial date has been set and Baker remains free on his own recognizance.
Barton County Attorney Douglas Matthews called several witnesses, including investigating officers and one of the nine people in a group riding five motorcycles through Barton County on the day of the fatal accident. Matthews also introduced several photos into evidence, along with the autopsy reports for each of the Schellengers, a lab report on the trailer hitch and evidence that Baker has a commercial driver’s license.
The accident occurred at 11:35 a.m. on a sunny summer day. Responders arrived in about 5 minutes
Jesse VanScyoc, Wichita, was with the group of cyclists. Shawn and Danielle Schellenger were on a Kawasaki behind him, headed west toward 10th and Patton Road. He saw the eastbound pickup approaching.
“When the truck and trailer were immediately beside me I heard the trailer drop off the hitch,” VanScyoc said, adding it’s a distinctive sound. “I heard the hitch drag on pavement and I heard the impact.”
He made a U-turn and saw Shawn Schellenger’s motorcycle on the road. Both of the Schellengers were lying on the highway.
The county attorney asked VanScyoc to describe the condition of the motorcycle.
“Trashed,” he said. The majority of the damage was to the “triple tree,” or the front of the motorcycle. “Basically it was crushed in that area.”
Advanced Emergency Medical Technician John Stettinger, battalion chief at the Great Bend Fire Department, testified that both patients were conscience when he arrived, but they had life-threatening injuries. They were transported to Great Bend Regional Hospital and later flown to Wichita.
Officers who testified Wednesday were Doug Hein, a former Great Bend Police Department patrol officer; GBPD Sgt. Jason Settle and Officer Heather McLemore; and Steve Billinger, who was a lieutenant for the Kansas Highway Patrol in 2014.
“Mr. Baker stated he should have put safety chains on the trailer but did not,” Hein testified. Hein said he saw no tie-downs for the mower, which was ejected from the trailer and landed in the road on its side.
Settle testified that there were tail lights on the trailer, but they weren’t hooked up.
McLemore collected the trailer hitch, and Baker did not stop her. Under cross examination, the officer said Baker didn’t actually consent to the confiscation.
“He appeared shaken up and he said he felt sad,” she testified. “He stated that his trailer had disconnected from his pickup. He stated that he did not put any chains on the trailer.”
“When I arrived on scene I could tell it was a catastrophic event,” Billinger testified. He said there were safety chains on the trailer, and it was not wired for traffic lights.
O’Hara cross examined each witness, bringing out the fact that Baker was not arrested at the accident and was not driving recklessly. He submitted to a preliminary breath test which showed zero alcohol in his system. He expressed concern about the injured people. He was not belligerent, and he was not given a ticket that day.
O’Hara said the case is an emotional one, and rightly so, but that “accidents do happen.”
“This case comes down to, probably, the definition of recklessness,” O’Hara said, questioning if there is a law that requires a safety chain on a trailer. “I think their whole case rests on these safety chains,” he continued. “The state is arguing my client committed gross negligence because those chains weren’t hooked up.”
“This does rise above simple negligence,” Matthews said, because the defendant was aware the chains weren’t attached. “He’s aware that he failed to take an action required by law. As a result, we’re talking about the death of two individuals. ... That’s recklessness, Your Honor.”