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In court, scales of justice

HILLSBORO • A truck driver from Texas will serve two years of probation for causing an eight-vehicle, chain-reaction crash that killed two people and injured others near Herculaneum when he took his eyes off the road one year ago.

Jay Valentine, 33, entered an Alford plea on Tuesday in Jefferson County Circuit Court to a misdemeanor charge of carelessly operating a vehicle involved in an accident. An Alford plea means that he did not admit guilt, but admitted there was enough evidence that he could be convicted at trial.

Prosecutors filed that charge against Valentine on Feb. 15.

Valentine was northbound on Interstate 55 near McNutt Street when he took his eyes off the road on June 2 of last year, according to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report. The patrol's report lists "inattention" as a contributing factor to the crash.

When he turned his attention back to the road, he saw a line of stopping cars, the patrol said. He tried to avoid the cars but swerved into one car and ran over another.

Charles A. Martin, 52, of Perryville, was driving the car the truck ran over. The truck dragged his car nearly the length of a football field. Martin was pronounced dead at the scene minutes after the crash.

The driver of another car caught in the pileup, 28-year-old Alana McKnight of Festus, was flown by helicopter to a hospital in St. Louis where she died a few hours later.

Four lawsuits — three for personal injury and one for wrongful death — are pending in Jefferson County against Valentine, of Huntsville, Texas, and Western Express Inc., the company that employed him.

The crash was similar to the one on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) near Interstate 270 on July 15, 2008. In that crash, Alabama trucker Jeffrey Knight killed three motorists after crashing into traffic that had slowed in front of him. The patrol said Knight told them he'd been reaching for his cell phone and took his eyes off the road.

Knight, 51, pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was released from jail the next day because the judge gave him credit for 371 days he had served in jail following his arrest.

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