20 Felony Counts Pile Up on Trucker
Holly Wallace was driving north on the Hollywood Freeway on May 18 when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer suddenly loomed menacingly behind her. Hemmed in by the heavy late-afternoon traffic, she had no place to go.
The next thing she knew, the 40-foot truck slammed into her from the rear five or six times. She managed to ease out of the truck’s way as it continued its rampage, leaving a trail of frightened drivers and twisted metal. Wallace was driving a Honda CRX--”about the size of one of the truck’s tires,” she recalled.
Wallace, a publicist for the Los Angeles public library, was one of 18 Southern California residents who testified Wednesday at a Los Angeles County Municipal Court preliminary hearing for Charley Tom Lee Jr., the driver of that truck.
One by one, Wallace and the other witnesses recalled how they recovered from the jolt of Lee’s truck and gave chase--dodging leaking fuel, broken glass, twisted scraps of metal and other cars until Lee was finally pulled over at gunpoint by the California Highway Patrol in Hollywood about 35 miles after the first assault.
Many of the witnesses said they were going as fast as 55 to 60 m.p.h. when they were rear-ended. They said that at one point the truck, which was hauling ironing boards, reached speeds of 80 m.p.h.
At the end of the hearing, Lee, 25, was held to answer on 20 felony counts stemming from the incident, including assault with a deadly weapon (the truck) as well as possession of a loaded handgun and a small amount of amphetamines. He did not testify, and his attorney offered no explanation for his behavior.
Judge Lourdes G. Baird reduced Lee’s bail by half, to $500,000, but Lee’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Laura Green, said such a high sum was still tantamount to “no bail.”
Lee had worked for about 2 1/2 years for the Fort Worth-based Lisa Motor Lines Inc., a division of Frozen Food Express of Houston.
Also attending the hearing were Lee’s wife, father, grandfather and several other relatives, including an uncle who is a pastor of a church near Bakersfield. Lee’s father also is a Lisa driver.
In an interview, Tammy Lee said that she had spoken to her husband by telephone on the morning of the incident and that he did not appear to be perturbed--even though his truck had broken down earlier.
“He seemed fine,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.” She described Lee as a gentle, mild-mannered man who rarely raises his voice. Until their first child was born 11 months ago, she said she often rode with him.
According to Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Veals, Lee began his assaults about 3 p.m. while traveling westbound on the San Bernardino Freeway near Temple City.
Like many of the victims, Scott C. Bland, a Temple City auction worker, testified that he saw Lee’s truck strike up to 15 other cars during the chase. Also like many of the others, Bland said he is still experiencing some neck, shoulder or back pains as a result of the incident.
One victim who pronounced herself lucky was Theodocia Goodrich, 84, a North Hollywood free-lance actress. She was riding in a taxicab at the time of the incident, having just returned to Los Angeles after a 36-hour train trip from Kansas. “So far I’ve not felt any heavy damage,” she testified.
Dan M. Lippiatt, a Los Angeles Times advertising representative in Simi Valley, said he had been in stop-and-go traffic when he saw in his rear-view mirror a truck coming up on him.
“I had no place to go, so I braced myself,” he recalled. After his car was struck, Lippiatt pulled over, expecting Lee to do likewise. Instead, Lee, in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, continued on his way.
Several others, including Pompilio Arguello, a Panorama City furniture assembler, said they lost control of their cars after being rammed. Arguello recalled that his car slammed into several others after the initial collision.
Among those who gave chase was George S. Fowler, a one-time truck driver and now a computer instructor. Fowler, a witness in the case, said Lee’s driving skills were “excellent,” adding: “The only time he braked was to keep control.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Lee sat quietly for the most part, occasionally conferring with Green, who called the rampage “an isolated and very sad incident” in her client’s life. He has no previous record.
As for Wallace, who is still experiencing neck and back pains, she said it was her added misfortune that she had been driving her own car May 18. Normally, she would have taken a city car to the late-afternoon meeting, but they had all been checked out already.
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