NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The truck driver charged in the fatal crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that also injured comedian Tracy Morgan and several other people pleaded not guilty at an initial court appearance Wednesday.
Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, appeared in state Superior Court to face charges of death by auto and assault by auto. A death-by-auto conviction carries a five- to 10-year prison sentence. Each of the four assault-by-auto charges is punishable by up to 18 months in prison.
Roper’s bail was kept at $50,000. He and his attorney, David Glassman, declined to speak to reporters after the brief hearing.
Roper was driving a Walmart truck early Saturday in Cranbury Township when authorities said he apparently failed to slow for traffic ahead and then swerved to avoid a crash.
Instead, authorities said his big rig smashed into the back of Morgan’s chauffeured limo bus, causing it to overturn.
EXTRA: Read The Complaint
Reporters outside court received no response when they asked Roper if he was indeed the man behind a series of tweets discussing the crash, WCBS 880’s Levon Putney reported. The user of the Twitter account bearing Roper’s name posted early Tuesday morning saying that his “prayers go out to all the families that were affected” but adding that he never told police he hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours.
“These lies are being spread because they are pressured to make an arrest … because a famous person was involved,” one tweet said.
The Twitter account has since gone private.
State police on Tuesday released audio recordings from three 911 calls made after the accident.
“It’s a terrible accident,” a woman tells the dispatcher in one of the calls. “The car flipped. It’s on its side. It’s two vehicles and a Walmart truck.”
The 45-year-old Morgan suffered a broken femur, a broken nose and several broken ribs. He underwent surgery for his broken leg and remained in critical but stable condition Tuesday. Morgan is expected to remain hospitalized for weeks.
His friend and fellow comedian James McNair was killed and two other passengers were seriously injured. Funeral services for McNair will be held Thursday, CBS 2’s Don Champion reported.
Another passenger was treated and released from the hospital Saturday and the limo driver and one more passenger weren’t injured.
McNair’s funeral is scheduled for Thursday.
According to the criminal complaint, Roper operated the truck “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours resulting in a motor vehicle accident.” It doesn’t specify the basis for that assertion.
Federal regulations allow truck drivers to work up to 14 hours a day with a maximum of 11 hours behind the wheel. They must have at least 10 hours off between work shifts to sleep.
Accident investigators are looking into what role Roper’s commute played in the fatal crash. NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said Roper lived in Georgia, but his job was based in Delaware.
Walmart has not explained what Roper’s driving route was. The company has said it believes he was in compliance with federal safety regulations.
“Safety is the absolute highest priority for Walmart,” the retailer said in an emailed statement.
Roper’s truck was equipped with a system designed to slow its speed and notify him of stopped traffic ahead, a company spokeswoman said. It’s unknown if the system was working.
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