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A woman was hit by a train while detained in a police car. Why is she still facing charges?

Yareni Rios-Gonzalez (Handout)
Yareni Rios-Gonzalez (Handout)

On 16 September, 20-year-old Yareni Rios-Gonzalez was hit by a freight train while she sat inside a Platteville Police Department patrol car in Colorado.

The unfathomable actions of Platteville Sergeant Pablo Vazquez, who parked the car on the tracks, and Fort Lupton Officer Jordan Steinke, who placed her inside the vehicle after she was arrested, cost Ms Rios-Gonzalez nine broken ribs, a broken arm, a fractured sternum and 12 days in a hospital bed.

Despite charges being brought against Mr Vazquez and Ms Steinke, the Weld County District Attorney’s Office has yet to drop felony menacing charges against Ms Rios-Gonzalez, who was detained after a road rage incident in which she allegedly threatened another motorist with a gun later found in her vehicle.

The arrest and the accident, Ms Rios-Gonzalez’s attorney Paul Wilkinson says, have caused the mother-of-one a great deal of physical and emotional pain. She’s also had to deal with the looming legal aftermath of a triggering incident in which, Mr Wilkinson claims, Ms Rios-Gonzalez was the victim and tried to defend herself.

“She’s recovering, but it will be a long road. She’s doing physical therapy, counselling, working with her surgeons,” Mr Wilkinson told The Independent on Tuesday. “There is a combination of what I assume is post-traumatic stress disorder and [ physical injuries.]”

Mr Wilkinson said he plans to sue the police departments but is awaiting a 90-day waiting period required to proceed with legal action against governmental agencies in the state of Colorado. He said that Ms Rios-Gonzalez will plead not guilty to her charges.

Yareni Rios-Gonzalez was hit by a train while she was in the backseat of a patrol car (Facebook)
Yareni Rios-Gonzalez was hit by a train while she was in the backseat of a patrol car (Facebook)

“He even gave an interview in which he admitted to being aggressive and following her,” Mr Wilkinson claimed about the other motorist involved in the road rage incident. “In fact, we’re not sure why he wasn’t charged.”

Ms Rios-Gonzalez’s mother, Maria Rodriguez, wrote in a GoFundMe created to help cover medical expenses that her daughter is still reeling from the injuries caused by the accident.

As her husband helps her to return to normalcy by assisting her in daily activities such as getting dressed, showering or even eating, he’s also had to take over the care of their two-year-old daughter, Ms Rodriguez said.

“Meanwhile my daughter and her family still have expenses to take care of. Unfortunately her husband has missed a lot of work ...Yareni won’t be able to work anytime soon and help support her husband like she used to,” Ms Rodriguez wrote.

Ms Rios-Gonzalez had been arrested during a road rage incident (Platteville Police Department)
Ms Rios-Gonzalez had been arrested during a road rage incident (Platteville Police Department)

Ms Rios-Gonzalez’s arrest and the crash are being investigated separately.

Mr Vazques was charged with reckless endangerment, obstructing a highway or other passageway, careless driving and parking where prohibited, the Weld County DA Office said on Monday, CBS reported. He was also placed on administrative leave while the Colorado Bureau of Investigation is examining the incident.

Ms Steinke faces charges of second-degree assault, criminal attempt to commit manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

According to an investigative report by CBS Colorado, Mr Vazquez had been the subject of five internal investigations in the Federal Heights Police Department, where he was employed from 2014 to 2020. When he resigned from Federal Heights in March 2020, he was immediately hired by Platteville Police.

Documents show that Mr Vazquez was repeatedly reprimanded for his poor work performance and labelled a “significant risk of liability to the City of Federal Heights and the safety of the officers under his supervision,” per CBS.

Another filing states that an officer claimed Mr Vazquez “rarely knows where his officers are and what kind of call they are on...[and] .... has an extremely slow response time to calls or requests for cover.”

The vehicle was hurled dozens of feet away before the car slid off the track and stopped in a field (Platteville Police Department)
The vehicle was hurled dozens of feet away before the car slid off the track and stopped in a field (Platteville Police Department)

Bodycam footage from different law enforcement officers who responded to Ms Rios-Gonzalez’s show the moment they realised she had been struck by a train.

Ms Rios-Gonzalez was removed from her vehicle and placed in handcuffs before Ms Steinke moved her to the backseat of the cruiser that had previously been parked on the train tracks by Mr Vazquez.

The officers walked away to search her truck, leaving Ms Rios-Gonzalez alone in the police vehicle. After searching her vehicle for a few minutes, police heard a horn blow in the distance and realised that a train was headed their way.

Mr Vazquez and Ms Steinke can then be heard discussing whether Ms Rios-Gonzalez could have tossed her gun out of the window before Ms Steinke heard the train approaching and screamed: “Oh my God, oh my God!”

An officer can be seen running to the cruiser and stops to consider trying to move the car, but realises the train is coming in too fast for him to safely assist. A voice from another officer at the scene calls for him to “get back.”

Heart-stopping video from a car parked right in front of Mr Vazquez’s patrol car captured the moment the freight train struck the vehicle with Ms Rios-Gonzalez inside. The cruiser was hurled dozens of feet before the car slid off the track and stopped in a field.

Officers made frantic calls for medical assistance. Moments later, as Mr Vazquez explained what had occurred, he said that the “saving grace” had been that Ms Steinke had placed Ms Rios-Gonzalez in the side of the vehicle that was not directly impacted by the train.