Witness Vanishes : Father Refuses to Call Off Hunt for Son's Killer

Associated Press

After months of patrolling highways for the hit-and-run trucker who killed his son, Claude Sams is now searching for the witness who led police to a suspect and then disappeared before charges could be filed.

"I'd just like to bury this thing and get it behind me, because it just keeps dragging me down," said Sams, a 47-year-old trucker who has spent more than half his life behind the wheel of big rigs.

Sams' 24-year-old son, Paul, was changing a flat tire in the emergency lane of Interstate 15 outside Barstow the night of March 26 when an 18-wheeler thundered out of the desert darkness, hit him and his car and sped off.

Paul's companion was too stunned to get anything but a sketchy description of the truck. He remembers only a yellow tractor pulling a pair of dirty white trailers.

Hopeless as his effort seemed, Claude Sams set out to find the killer.

He has lost count of the number of miles he has put on his small pickup, the number of times he has driven from Los Angeles to Las Vegas looking for that truck, the number of times he has pleaded over the CB radio for fellow drivers to help him.

Major Break in Case

His determination drew national publicity, and by late April police had what they considered a major break in the case.

A man identifying himself as a trucker named Alfredo Torres called the California Highway Patrol and claimed that he had seen a truck hit something on I-15 outside Barstow the night of March 26.

Torres told police that he thought the truck in front of him had hit a bicycle and didn't realize it was a human being until he read newspaper accounts of Claude Sams' search.

He provided a detailed description of the truck, which he said carried Utah plates and the logo of PBI Trucking in Orem, Utah, about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Police tracked down a PBI truck, yellow with two white trailers, and a driver whose logs showed that he had been in the area around the time of the hit-and-run.

Paint samples taken from the truck offered no proof the truck had hit Paul's green Chevrolet, however, and the driver, when questioned by the CHP, denied involvement. Police report that the driver has since been fired by PBI for allegedly failing to deliver some furniture.

The CHP turned its case over to the San Bernardino County district attorney to seek charges against the suspect.

Not Enough Evidence

Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Edgeworth said that he made several futile attempts to contact Torres before deciding not to file charges "because we just felt there was not enough evidence" without witnesses. "The informant wouldn't come forward," he said.

Edgeworth also was unable to track down Rick Shaw, the friend who was with Paul the night he was killed.

The telephone number Torres gave the CHP has been disconnected, and the address he provided in Ogden, Utah, is a vacant house. Directory assistance has no listing for Torres in the area, which is about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Torres was never considered a suspect himself, according to Sgt. Jim Pitsor, who led the CHP investigation.

Pitsor feels certain that the suspect Torres helped track down is the driver who killed Paul Sams.

"Even though we know he did it, there's not enough evidence yet for it to stand up in court," Pitsor said. "We worked real hard on this and to have it rejected is quite a letdown."

Case Could Be Reopened

Edgeworth said the case could be reopened if Torres or any other witnesses come forward and provide sufficient evidence to charge the suspect driver with vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run.

Claude Sams' hopes of sending someone to jail are dimming, but he isn't ready to give up.

He talks about going to Utah to find the missing witness or to confront the suspect. He talks of filing a civil suit against the suspect and PBI Trucking, which refuses to comment on the Sams case.

"I don't think I'll ever let it die," Sams vowed. "Not until I get answers."

It has become an obsession.

"We talk about it non-stop," said Sams' wife, Vi, who married him after his three children were grown. "We ask if it's time to start writing congressmen and senators. We've just been so full of questions all these months."

A photo album is filled with newspaper clippings about the case, along with Sams' color snapshots of Paul in his coffin and his son's dried blood on I-15.

Hollywood screenwriters besieged Sams with requests to turn his story into a movie. Sams signed a deal with Dennis Shryack and Michael Blodgett, whose credits include the Clint Eastwood films "Pale Rider" and "Gauntlet."

Sams "is still not sleeping nights," his wife said. "He still spends the wee hours of the morning stewing."

Her husband interrupted. "I still hope that individual out there is not sleeping either and will come forward," he said. "I don't know how that guy can get behind the wheel of another truck.

"All he had to do was stop. That's all."

Although the outpouring of sympathy has touched Sams, it sometimes proves painful.

Sams recently asked for a transfer from the refinery where he has worked for three years "because all the guys kept asking me about it over and over again and it just kept taking me back to March 26, 9:45 p.m. It got to me so bad."

Anguish creeps into even the everyday moments of Sams' life.

When asked how he takes his mind off the tragedy, he searched hard for an answer. He started to tell how he and Vi bought a sheep dog puppy. Taking the pup to obedience training "fills the void time," Sams explained.

He finished the story by noting quietly that the puppy was born April 2, "the day we buried Paul."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World