Public Safety

Trial begins in Cedar Rapids man's 'texting' fatal accident

Defense claims sun, sight lines were a factor in 2016 accident

Keith Furne
Keith Furne

NEVADA, Iowa — Jennifer Perez started the day with four beautiful daughters and ended the day with but two dead children and one seriously injured child, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Assistant Linn County Attorney Elena Wolford said in an opening statement that Perez had just picked up her 4-year-old at day care and her three teenagers from school and was driving home to Belle Plaine on Nov. 3, 2016.

Perez stopped her Chevrolet Aveo at a westbound stop sign on County Home Road and North Troy Road, waiting to turn left, when her car was hit from behind by a white pickup truck.

Keith Furne also was driving the pickup and texting while traveling 60 mph hour in a 55 mph speed zone when he crashed into the back of Perez’s Aveo, Wolford said.

Furne, 35, of Cedar Rapids, is on trial this week in Story County District Court, facing charges of reckless driving resulting in serious injury and two counts of homicide by vehicle.

A jury was selected Tuesday, with testimony beginning Wednesday. The trail was moved out of Linn County because of pretrial publicity.

During her opening statement, Wolford said evidence will be presented to show Furne was “actively” in a text message conversation when the collision happened.

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She also told the jury that witnesses will testify about seeing Furne’s truck driving “too fast” as he reached the intersection and that and no signs of brake marks were found on the roadway.

Furne had “willful disregard” for Perez and her family and his “recklessness” caused the death of Selena Apodaca, 16, and Isabella Severson, 14, and seriously injured another daughter, Elysia Severson, 13.

Al Willett of Cedar Rapids, Furne’s lawyer, said in his opening statement that evidence will show his client unintentionally caused the two deaths and serious injury.

“We aren’t contesting this. It was a tragic accident,” Willett said.

Evidence, he said, also will show Furne veered his Chevrolet Silverado pickup to the right before it hit Perez’s vehicle. He didn’t hit the car head-on.

Willett argued Furne’s vision was affected by the sun because he was driving west and two “rises” along that stretch of road factored into the collision.

Willett said Furne wasn’t texting at the time of the collision, as the state claims. His client was sending text messages at some point, but he did not concede he was texting leading up to the accident.  

It will be up to the jury to decide if Furne’s actions were “reckless,” according to law, Willett said. Recklessness can’t be decided by one fact, it has to be a “totality of circumstances,” he said.

Perez, 38, formerly of Belle Plaine and now a resident of Marion, was the first witness Wednesday and said she had little memory of the crash. She only recalls pain.

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She teared up as she talked about her daughters — Selena, Isabella, Elysia and 4-year-old Mia — and identified them in family photos.

Other witnesses testified to seeing the crash and trying to help the family afterward.

Jaymus Wilson, 17, said his pickup truck also was topped at intersection and was hit by Perez’s car after the impact.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks asked Wilson if he had had any trouble seeing on the road that day.

Wilson said he didn’t, that the sun was out but it didn’t affect his vision.

Susan Eiben of Anamosa, said she was headed home from work in Hiawatha that day, driving east and saw the Silverado going fast as it came up behind the Perez car. The pickup veered right, but it was too late, she said.

“It felt dangerous,” she said about the pickup’s speed.

Other witnesses, who provided aid to the girls and their mother before emergency personnel and law enforcement arrived, testified about the “jaws of life” being used on the Aveo in order to get the family out of the car.

Doug Schmieder, a witness who stopped, said the driver of the pickup who hit Perez’s car — Furne — asked “if they were dead.”

Schmieder told him he didn’t know for sure. Furne, who wasn’t injured, seemed concerned, Schmieder added.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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