A fearful Manuel Cruzado Jr. listened to a prosecutor tell a jury that he caused the deaths of eight people on a West Virginia highway in July.
But the 26-year-old truck driver became more optimistic about an acquittal as witness after witness for his defense testified that the brakes on his car-carrier were useless and the highway where the crash occurred was not properly marked.
"We started getting more confident when the defense rested," Cruzado said Friday during an interview in his parents' Lackawanna home. "They had a weak prosecution. Their prosecution stemmed from too many things."
After deliberating for little more than two hours following the two-day trial, the Braxton County Magistrate Court jury found Cruzado innocent Thursday night.
"I felt so happy because I knew he was innocent of this. It was an accident, you know," said Manuel Cruzado Sr., who left West Virginia with his son minutes after the verdict was announced at 8:50 p.m.
"I was worried," said the relieved father, explaining that he did not think his son would be found innocent. "We don't know anybody (in West Virginia). People would think he was a reckless driver. I know he wasn't. But that had to be proved."
Cruzado, who previously lived on Carolina Street in Buffalo, still faces civil suits seeking more than $30 million filed against him by two families whose relatives died in the crash at the Sutton exit of Interstate 79, about 60 miles north of the state capital of Charleston.
Cruzado was charged with eight misdemeanor counts of criminally negligent homicide when the car-carrier he was driving from Florida to Buffalo slammed into a slow-moving column of cars July 26. The collision set off a chain reaction of explosions and wrecks that killed four adults and four children.
During the trial, prosecutor Bill Martin tried to prove the brakes on Cruzado's truck were working. He also attempted to show the truck driver ignored warning signs as his truck barreled toward a highway construction site where the collision took place. Cruzado was hauling eight cars for Double-B Co. of West Seneca at the time.
Cruzado said he was most uneasy when Martin called him to the witness stand and questioned him for what seemed an eternity. In addition to questioning Cruzado about the crash itself, he also repeatedly asked Cruzado about the details of his trip from Florida to West Virginia and whether he was familiar with the steep incline where the crash occurred, Cruzado said.
"I was real nervous," Cruzado explained. "I don't know if he was trying to break me. He had me up there for a while. He kept asking me questions that didn't have a lot to do with the case."
But Cruzado said his attorneys, Gary Collias and Leah Griffin of Charleston, calmed his fears when they tried convincing him the prosecution had not presented a strong enough case.
A mechanic, Jerry Jarvis, had inspected the brakes of the truck and found them badly worn and useless. Others said there were no flagmen or proper warning signs, and a South Carolina motorist testified he had noticed the smell of burning brakes when he passed Cruzado's truck moments before the crash.
Cruzado, a graduate of Lackawanna High School who served in the U.S. Air Force, said the collision and the trial have been on his mind since the crash. He said he has thought of little else, and has not tried to find work. He said he never again wants to drive a truck.
"I have no idea," he said when asked for his plans. "I have no idea. If I can get back in school, I think I'll go back."
"I just want to visit all my friends," he added. "They've been calling every day since I left."
Cruzado said he is grateful for the people who supported him during the ordeal. In West Virginia, residents even offered Cruzado and his father a place to stay during the trial, and police forgave a parking ticket they received, the elder Cruzado said. Some of the testimony in Cruzado's defense came from motorists who contacted authorities after they heard about the charges against the truck driver, Cruzado said.
"I had a lot of support. I had some people from far away, from as far away as Ohio and South Carolina (who came) to testify," Cruzado said.
Despite his innocence, Cruzado said he will always remember the accident and the victims.
"I'm never going to forget," he said. "I'll never forget this at all."