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October 26, 2020 10:30 AM, EDT

Driver Whose Truck Entered Crowded Protest Faces Charges

MinnesotaA sign for I-35 in Minnesota. (cosmonaut/Getty Images)

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A Minnesota tank truck driver is facing charges in a case where his truck entered a stretch of road that had not been closed to traffic amid a demonstration against Minneapolis police in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

The Hennepin, Minn., County Attorney in documents filed Oct. 22 charged Bogdan Vechirko with a felony count of threats to violence and a misdemeanor count of criminal vehicular operation in the May 31 incident, in which local authorities admitted the stretch of Interstate 35 where Vechirko’s truck was traveling had not been blockaded despite the presence of the large protest. Vechirko’s attorney Kevin DeVore said the driver — who was eventually dragged from his truck and attacked by some at the protest — was unaware the demonstration was happening and tried his best to safely navigate the situation. Vechirko, from Oswego, Minn., drives for fuel hauler Kenan Advantage.

“He was driving freeway speeds, in fairly moderate traffic, and unbeknownst to him he comes upon a group of about 3,000 people standing in the middle of I-35, which is four lanes north and south — a major freeway — and he’s driving an 88,000-pound truck,” DeVore told Transport Topics. “Now they’re saying he should have been able to stop that; it’s outrageous.”

In the charging document, the county attorney said investigators reviewed video from several sources, including traffic cameras and cell phone video, and also recreated Vechirko’s drive from the entrance ramp and onto the Mississippi River bridge where the incident took place. The prosecution asserted that Vechirko had sufficient time to see the crowd and stop.

Minnesota Trucking Association President John Hausladen told TT that the highway on that day was dangerous, and all drivers — including truckers — needed more information that they did not get. “There are a lot of safe places to exercise your First Amendment rights, but a freeway is not one of them,” Hausladen said.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington acknowledged during a June 1 news conference that the road Vechirko was traveling had not yet been closed to prevent vehicular traffic from approaching the demonstrators.

“We know that the driver of the tanker truck was on the freeway already,” he said. “He was on [Interstate] 94 already, and he turned onto 35 before we got barricades or trucks there to block off his access to 35. This was his second run of the day. He was running empty; there was no fuel in that tanker truck.”

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DeVore said officials initially planned to close down the freeway around 8 p.m. The incident took place around 6 p.m.

After his truck eventually stopped, Vechirko was pulled from the cab and attacked by some of the protesters. His attorney said Vechirko is on limited duty while still recovering from his injuries and is not yet back behind the wheel.

“He was hauled out of his truck and beaten, almost to death. A few good Samaritans saved him from getting killed,” DeVore said. “He still has some lingering injuries to his eye, and he’s working through the emotional scars he’s got when he was ripped from his truck. The Kenan group has been very good; they support him 100%. He’s been treated very fairly.”

No charges have been filed against the protesters who attacked Vechirko. Moments before Vechirko entered I-35, he delivered fuel to a gas station near where Floyd died. At the time of the incident, station owner Lonnie McQuirter said Vechirko was the only driver willing to make deliveries to his station as many were nervous about coming to the neighborhood.

After he saw video of Vechirko’s truck driving onto I-35, McQuirter sent out a tweet defending the driver. “These people suck. The driver just left my store doing me, a Black business owner, a favor,” he said.

DeVore said part of his defense strategy will center on how Minneapolis officials and the Minnesota Department of Transportation lost control of the situation by allowing protesters onto the interstate highway and failing to tell drivers that the road was not safe. “He wasn’t trying to scare anybody. There was a big group of people standing on the freeway, and he lays on his horn. Why wouldn’t you do that,” DeVore said of his client. “The horn was to say, ‘I’m driving a really heavy truck, and I can’t stop on a dime. Please disperse so I don’t hurt anybody.’ There were a lot of things that went wrong. I think this thing developed a lot faster than MinnDOT believed it would.”

DeVore said his client is scheduled to make an initial court appearance on Nov. 10 and plans to plead not guilty to the charges.

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