ST PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill Friday to shut a loophole in state law that prevented a light rail train operator from facing charges for a fatal crash that claimed the life of a prominent Twin Cities ballroom dancer.
The bill, which passed with broad bipartisan support, was introduced in the wake of a KARE 11 investigation into the July 2017 death of 29-year-old Nicholas Westlake.
Westlake was killed when a Green Line operator ran through signals to stop and slammed into his car as he crossed through the intersection of Eustis and University in St Paul.
Although prosecutors believed there was clear evidence that the train operator was at fault in the crash, they decided he could not be charged because Minnesota traffic law does not apply to trains.
Peter Westlake, who watched as Gov. Walz signed the reform bill into law, said that while nothing can bring his brother Nic back, for the family, “it will be a small comfort to know that something good came out of his passing.”
A traffic camera above the intersection of Eustis and University in St. Paul captured the crash in startling clarity. It shows the Green Line train slamming into the car Nic was driving.
He was trapped in the driver’s seat as the vehicle started on fire. St. Paul firefighters freed him, but he died of his injuries at the hospital.
When Westlake’s car enters the intersection, the video shows his traffic signal was still yellow. In fact, KARE 11’s analysis revealed the light did not turn red until two seconds after the train collided with the car.
What’s more, train operators have their own signals. A vertical bar means go and a horizontal bar means stop. Cameras onboard the light rail train clearly show the signals were horizontal before the train entered the intersection.
But the train operator, Abdellatif El Maarouf, faced no charges.
The St. Paul City Attorney’s office declined to file charges even though Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Stephen Christie wrote that he believed the train operator was at fault.
His memo declining prosecution reads: “In the opinion of this office, the investigation clearly establishes that Mr. El Maarouf operated a light rail train in an unsafe manner which was responsible for the collision with the motor vehicle on July 15, 2017.” The memo says the train operator “disobeyed the LRT traffic signal’s horizontal line.”
However, the prosecutor wrote, “In the Traffic Code, the definition of 'vehicle' specifically excludes a rail train.”
The memo continued: “Thus there can be no criminal charges in this case for any violation of the Traffic Code because it does not apply to the operation of a rail train.”
“One of the most challenging conversations we had to have was with the district attorney,” Peter Westlake told lawmakers as he testified at a Senate hearing in March.
He explained that the prosecutor, “Sat us down and said, yeah, everything shows that this guy ran a red light and if he were in a bus, if he were in a car, if he were in a truck, we would be pressing charges. But because he’s driving a light rail there’s nothing we can do because that’s how the law is written.”
A family’s fight for reform
Peter and younger brother Seth Westlake appeared at every hearing for the bills, lobbying for reform.
“We just want to see that changed,” Peter explained to lawmakers. “We think that it’s appropriate that light rail operators driving three-hundred-thousand-pound vehicles should be held to at least the same standard as you or I when we drive a car down the street.”
Despite at times heated discussion between Democrats and Republicans over whether the wording of the bill goes far enough, the bipartisan measures passed through the Senate unanimously and the House with just one dissenting vote.
A new law
Blizzard conditions prevented the Westlake parents, Bob and Lisa, along with other members of the family from making it from their South Dakota home to St. Paul for the bill signing.
So, Gov. Walz called them on speaker phone.
“I wish I had words and I wish this bill signing would bring back your beautiful boy,” Walz told the Westlakes. “But I’m always in awe of people who turn these tragedies into something positive for others and this case today is that embodied.”
The bill’s sponsors had similar praise for the tenacity of the family in pushing for this reform.
“It’s very rare when you can find a family that will bring forward something… that can make such an impact for the future of folks as this bill does,” said Rep. Cheryl Youakim (D – 46B). “Thank you,” she added, “thank you for letting us be a part of it.”
“With the Governor’s signature today, that statute will be brought into the 21st century and our Minnesota traffic code will apply to light rail drivers,” Senator Carla Nelson (R – Olmsted) told Peter. “And that’s because of you and your family and in your pain stepping forward and saying we can make this better.”
Peter, holding a magazine with his brother Nic’s picture on the cover, watched on as Gov. Walz signed the measure into law.
“We’re here because obviously this tragic accident took my brother and we of course miss him terribly,” said Peter. “This is one positive thing that can come out of this - that Minnesota will be safer because Nic was here. He loved this community, he loved the light rail and he would love to know that he was part of making it safer. He’d be so proud.”
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