William Howard Baker, the man charged with causing the deaths of two people when his trailer came loose and hit a motorcycle traveling through Great Bend in 2014, has died. Two counts of manslaughter related to the deaths of Shawn and Danielle Schellenger were dismissed in Barton County District Court, due to the defendant being deceased.
Baker had previously been diagnosed with terminal cancer and his trial had been on hold for that reason.
Although the court order to terminate the case was filed on Nov. 19, people who have followed the case report that Baker died four months earlier, on July 20.
No obituary was ever submitted for Baker but one man, Ron Melancon, an advocate for stricter trailer safety laws, never stopped following the case and stayed in touch with family members. Melancon, with DangerousTrailers.org, created the Facebook page/public group “Justice for Shawn and Danielle Schellenger’s (sic) in Kansas.”
No safety chains
Police and court records show that on a sunny Saturday morning on Aug. 16, 2014, five motorcyclists were traveling west through Great Bend on 10th Street. Shawn Schellenger, 27, was fourth in line, with his wife Danielle, 33, as his passenger on a Kawasaki. Both were wearing helmets.
Baker, then 59 years old, was eastbound in the inside line, approaching the motorcycles in a 2001 Ford F-150 pickup pulling a single-axel trailer that carried a riding mower was placed in the rear of the trailer. Baker failed to attach safety chains on the trailer and when the ball popped off the hitch, the trailer came loose and traveled into the oncoming traffic, striking the motorcycle.
Responders arrived in about 5 minutes. The Schellengers were flown to a Wichita hospital but Danielle Schellenger died that afternoon and Shawn Schellenger died the following evening.
No arrests were made at the time. County Attorney Doug Matthews said several items of debris collected at the scene were sent to a lab for testing. A search warrant was later executed at Baker’s property to collect the trailer hitch.
Charges were filed about 10 months later, in June of 2015. Baker remained free on a $50,000 own-recognizance bond.
His preliminary hearing eventually took place in December of 2015.
Doug Hein, a former Great Bend Police Department patrol officer, testified, “Mr. Baker stated he should have put safety chains on the trailer but did not.” Hein said he saw no tie-downs for the mower, which was ejected from the trailer and landed in the road on its side.
Officer Heather McLemore testified that Baker “appeared shaken up and he said he felt sad. ... He stated that he did not put any chains on the trailer.”
Barton County Magistrate Judge Don Alvord found probable cause and Baker was arraigned. Through his attorney, Charles O’Hara, he entered a plea of not guilty and requested a jury trial.
Civil case filed
A trial date was set for May of 2016. Meanwhile, a civil suit was filed on behalf of the Schellengers’ heirs. Baker and his business, HB Landscaping, were named in the suit, which was eventually settled out of court for $500,000.
The jury trial in the criminal case was rescheduled a few times as both O’Hara and Matthews prepared their cases and attempted to reach a plea agreement.
Court records from 2017 revealed Baker’s “potentially terminal medical condition ... The court is advised that the defendant cannot physically appear in court and that this condition is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.”
The case became active again in 2018 and it appeared that a jury trial might happen that year. O’Hara said Baker was still in poor health and he would get a doctor’s deposition to see if he was physically able to attend hearings.
On Sept. 17, 2018, the day the trial was scheduled to start, Judge Scott McPherson ruled that Baker would not stand trial as long as his cancer medication interfered with his ability to participate in his defense.
The case remained in limbo until the court was advised of Baker’s death and it was closed for good.
Ron Melancon with DangerousTrailer.org said his group is also closing its file. “This is not the end to the prosecution that we wanted; we were prepared to argue for the punishments allowed by law, which could have included imprisonment,” he said.
It is important that people continue to hear the facts about loose and unsafe trailers to help others avoid the same fate as the Schellengers, Melancon said. “Over 700 will die in 2019.”
According to the website, Dangerous Trailers.Org is the only national safety organization devoted solely to preventing injuries and deaths from passenger vehicles towing trailers. There links on the website to numerous Facebook pages dedicated to individuals and life stories such as the story of the Schellengers.