PRINCETON — After hearing emotional pleas for justice from the loved ones of a family of four who were killed in 2017 by a head-on crash with a tractor-trailer on Interstate 77, an Illinois truck driver was sentenced Thursday to more than four years in jail for negligent homicide and reckless driving.
Bertram Copeland, 41, of Rockford, Ill. came before Magistrate Sandra Dorsey for sentencing. Copeland was found guilty last week on four counts of negligent homicide and one count of reckless driving. Dorsey sentenced him to a year in jail for each negligent homicide charge and six months on reckless driving. The sentences are to be served consecutively, meaning he will serve more than four years in jail. Dorsey said this was the maximum sentence she could give him.
Copeland was arrested in January in connection with the death of Carl David Gilley, 48, Christine Tara Warden Gilley 42, their daughter Grace Margaret Gilley, 13 and son Jack Nathaniel Gilley, 10, all of Salisbury, NC. The family was killed in a head-on crash with Copeland’s tractor-trailer on April 13, 2017 near the Camp Creek exit on Interstate 77. Their family dog, Harley, was killed in the crash as well.
Dorsey thanked the families for being respectful during the hearing.
“I’m sorry everybody had to come back,” Dorsey said. “I’ve spent hours going through the case law to make sure this is a fair hearing.”
Copeland looked down for most of his sentencing, hand on his head and sometimes wiping away tears. Dorsey said that she considered the factors behind the crash while determining his sentence. There were large warning signs alerting truck drivers going south toward Camp Creek that the highway had a 5 percent grade, a 55 mph speed limit, and notices advising tractor-trailer drivers to shift down rather than ride their brakes.
Witnesses have said that nobody was in front of Copeland’s tractor-trailer when the crash happened, but there was northbound traffic where the Gilley family was traveling. One witness was a commercial truck driver with 30 years of experience, Dorsey said.
Testimony showed that Copeland’s big rig was going 70 to 81 mph when the crash happened, she stated.
“I am finding the defendant guilty on all counts, and again my condolences to the family. I’m sorry this case took so long to go to trial.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Anthony H. Heltzel, the case’s lead prosecutor, told Dorsey that the family had victims’ impact statements they wanted to read to the court. Donna Gilley Flores, an aunt of Carl David Gilley, went to the witness stand. She sobbed as she read her letter.
“I wrote this letter a month after the accident,” Flores said. “Our family has been devastated. We will never be the same again. Our family has lost a treasure that can never be replaced.” Later she added, “I personally want somebody to wake me up and tell me it was all a mistake...my pen on my paper cannot reflect my heart.”
Flores said she has struggled to make sense of the tragedy. Her mother said that she always had a special bond with her brother. Her mother passed away in October 2015, and the family was just starting to feel normal when the new tragedy struck.
“My heart is screaming,” Flores said. “I want him back. I want all of them back.”
The Gilley family’s relatives repeatedly spoke of their faith and how it gave them strength after being hit by such a tragedy.
“I am confident in my faith that they have run into the arms of Our Heavenly Father, “ Flores said. “I am shaken, but my faith is unshakeable. David, Christine, Grace and Jack have finished the race and crossed the finish line as a family. Just as they lived their lives on this Earth, they have crossed into heaven as a family. They are with the King of Kings. I would like to add that I have no hatred, unforgiveness or bitterness in my heart.”
Carl David’s brother, Jessie Gilley, held up a small poster bearing the family’s names and read from their obituary.
“How fortunate we were to be part of their lives,” he told the court, adding later, “He was loved not only by his siblings but by all who had the opportunity to meet him. All of us are dealing with unimaginable grief.
Christine Gilley’s aunt, Dawn Heishman, remembered April 13, 2017 as “a beautiful day” and recalled how eager the family was to see them for Easter. As evening turned into night, excitement turned into worry. Calls to cellphones were not answered. As each hour passed, everyone knew something was wrong. Then, at about 3:30 a.m., April 14, 2017, to Ohio State Police troopers arrived with the tragic news. The entire family had been killed the previous day in West Virginia just a few hours after they left their home in North Carolina.
“The weeks following their death was the pain beyond imagining for me and my family,” Heishman recalled.
She told the court about how belongings recovered from the crash arrived in large trash bags, and about the smell of gasoline and mildew as they sorted through the items.
“We would find things not destroyed and...” she sobbed. “... we would find partially destroyed. When we discovered the kids’ Easter baskets, we were destroyed. They were destroyed.”
Kristy Wheeler-Scott of Warrenton, Va. put photos of the Gilley family in front of Copeland. She said Christine Gilley was her best friend and family to her.
“Can you look at me, please,” she said to Copeland. When he looked up, she continued. “I don’t think you can understand how wonderful these people were...I have one voicemail I have that I hope never gets deleted from my phone.”
“We have been robbed of so much,” Wheeler-Scott said to Copeland.” My dad was a CDL driver all my life...you mess up. An entire family and their dog are gone forever.”
Wheeler-Scott told Copeland that she hoped the Gilley family’s faces would be the first thing he saw in the morning and the last vision at night. She added that the Gilleys would be the first people to forgive him even if she never would forgive.
“I do hope it is miserable for you,” she said of his future jail time. “But I hope you will make better decisions.
The family left the courtroom after Dorsey passed the sentence, but Sheriff Tommy Bailey followed them out and informed them that Copeland wanted to say something to them if they wanted to listen.
“I deeply apologize for your loss,” he said, standing sometimes and fighting emotion. The last time he was in court, it was for the trial of a DUI driver who killed in wife in 2001. “I have empathy for you.”
Copeland said his truck had a mechanical failure.
“This was an accident, this was an accident,” he stated. “That truck needed $10,000 of work on it...I didn’t know that. They (trucking company) railroaded me. It wasn’t the brakes, it was the air. I completely lost air out there. The wheels locked up...the weight shifted to the left. You all act like I’m a monster, but I’m not.
“I feel all your pain and I’m truly sorry,” Copeland continued. “I ain’t blaming God for this. I’m saying I don’t understand. I can’t wrap my mind around it, I know that I did not mean for this to happen.”
Dorsey said while handing down the sentence that she did not see any evidence from the prosecution or the defense that “there was any unforeseen mechanical error.”
Unless Copeland decides to appeal, he must report for jail by April 2, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Lauren Lynch said later. Copeland was represented by attorney Derrick Lefler.
Scott-Wheeler and members of the Gilley family said after the hearing that Copeland would have gotten more time behind bars in Virginia; there he would have faced a sentence of 10 to 15 years.
“It’s absurd that it (negligent homicide) is a misdemeanor in this state,” she said.
— Contact Greg Jordan at email@example.com