Truck thief who crashed while fleeing `zombies' sentenced to 4 years

POSTED: 07:54 AM PDT Jun 24, 2013    UPDATED: 02:01 PM PDT Jun 24, 2013 
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MURRIETA, Calif. -

A 19-year-old man who told authorities he was attempting to flee from ``zombies'' when he stole a big rig in Temecula while under the influence of drugs and crashed the truck into several cars -- nearly killing a young woman -- was sentenced today to four years in prison.

Jeremiah Clyde Hartline pleaded guilty last month to assault with a deadly weapon resulting in great bodily injury, felony hit-and-run and auto theft for causing an April 6 chain crash on northbound Interstate 15.

Under a plea deal with prosecutors, the defendant admitted guilt on three felony counts and the Riverside County District Attorney's Office dropped two other felony allegations and a misdemeanor.

Superior Court Judge Judith Clark imposed a sentence that was one year shy of the maximum Hartline could have received.

``Mr. Hartline almost destroyed the life of another human being,'' Deputy District Attorney Scott Mason told City News Service.

``Even though that person survived, she is dealing with ongoing damage and will be recovering for a long time, if she ever does,'' the prosecutor said. ``Hopefully, when Mr. Hartline is out of custody, he will change his life around, get an education and stop using drugs.''

Mason said that a couple days before the crash, Hartline had accepted an invitation to ride with his friend, long-haul trucker Daniel Martinez, who drove his rig from Tennessee to San Diego to retrieve a load of strawberries.

Around 6 p.m. on April 6, Martinez parked his 18-wheeler at the CHP's Rainbow Canyon commercial vehicle compliance station just off northbound I-15. While Martinez was outside his tractor-trailer, making adjustments, Hartline told authorities that he began to have visions of zombies coming after him.

According to the CHP, the defendant was wearing a zombie T-shirt and was under the influence of methamphetamine.

CHP Officer Nathan Baer told CNS that Hartline slid behind the wheel of the truck, throwing it into gear and accelerating onto the freeway.

``Hartline thought that zombies were chasing him and clinging to the truck,'' Baer said. ``He swerved the truck side to side to shake the zombies off.''

Less than two miles into the wild ride, near the exit to Temecula Parkway, the defendant rear-ended a Toyota Tacoma, causing the pickup truck to collide with a Toyota 4Runner SUV, which hit a Mercedes-Benz, according to Baer. The Tacoma flipped end-over-end, while the Mercedes sedan and 4Runner spun into the center divider.

The big rig veered to the left, out of control, sideswiping a Ford Taurus and a Honda Accord before jackknifing and blocking all four traffic lanes, according to the CHP.

Baer said Hartline leapt from the semi and ran to a cleaning service van that had stopped nearby, climbing inside and attempting to steal that vehicle, whose driver detained the young man until officers arrived.

Hartline was treated for minor injuries at Rancho Springs Medical Center in Murrieta and transported to jail.

The occupants of the Tacoma -- Kyle Schlosser of San Jacinto and Sarah Small of Hemet -- were seriously injured in the crash. Small, a passenger in the vehicle, was comatose and barely clinging to life when she was rushed to a hospital, according to Mason.

``It's a miracle she pulled through,'' he said of the 20-year-old. ``She has left the hospital, but she is learning to walk again and suffers from memory loss. She can't remember what happened on the freeway.''

Ironically, Small's father was killed in a wreck a decade earlier, Mason said.

``Her mother told the court that she thought she was going to lose her daughter the same way,'' the prosecutor told CNS.

Schlosser's head was split open in the crash and required staples to close, according to Mason.

The occupants of the other vehicles suffered minor to moderate injuries, for which they also received treatment.

``One lady said she was so traumatized by what happened that she fears driving on the freeway and hasn't since this happened,'' Mason said.

I-15 was closed for three hours for the cleanup and investigation. Baer said the load of strawberries, bound for Maryland, could not be salvaged.

Hartline apologized to the victims for his actions.

``His mother says he has had a drug problem since his father's death about six years ago,'' Mason said.

Clark recognized that the crash was not intentional but emphasized that Hartline should have known better, especially given the fact that he had a prior drug-related conviction in Tennessee and was ordered to complete a treatment program.

``He should have known how the drugs would affect him,'' Mason said.