Everett Copeland, 5, was killed after being hit by an unmanned, runaway construction truck in the driveway of his home in the Forest Ridge subdivision in Hillsborough.
District Court Judge Samantha Cabe sentenced the truck’s operator, Alejandro Suarez, 28, of Angier, to 65 days in jail – the maximum possible sentence was 75 days.
Suarez, a Mexican citizen in the country illegally, has been in the Orange County jail and under a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainment order since his arrest.
Federal officials are expected to take him into custody after his release Feb. 28. Federal officers have said Suarez has a 2009 conviction for driving under the influence.
Defense attorney Bill Young said Suarez, who has a third-grade education, left Mexico for the United States when he was 17. He came here to make money and help his poverty-stricken parents and siblings, Young said; he hasn’t seen them in 11 years.
“From the minute I met him, he has been horrified about his mistake and the role he has played in this tragic loss,” Young said.
Suarez was part of a crew working at the under-construction subdivision Dec. 26. He had backed up the truck to be loaded with dirt and parked it before exiting to use the restroom, Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall said.
Suarez and other workers saw the truck start to roll away and tried to stop it, Woodall said, but it crashed into Everett and into a pole, a retaining wall, a car and the house. Everett died a short time later at the hospital, he said.
An auto mechanic who later checked the truck said the parking brake had been applied and was worn, Woodall said. Other witnesses indicated the truck, which was left running, was in gear instead of in neutral when it came to a rest, he said. The hill’s steep grade was strong enough to overcome the brake, he said.
Everett’s father, Bill Copeland, who sat with his wife, Ashley, and Everett’s aunt for the hearing, said they lost a child who “brought infectious enthusiasm and curiosity to everything he did.”
The district attorney’s office had the support of Everett’s family in charging Suarez, Woodall said.
“I think the charge lodged against him was the appropriate charge, based on all the evidence in the case,” Woodall said. “He acknowledged from the very beginning that he was the driver of the truck, so he was the one responsible for making sure that the truck was properly secured, and this offense is based on his failure to do that.”
The family has filed a civil lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against Suarez and the construction companies building the subdivision.
The lawsuit states Suarez had no experience operating trucks and did not have a driver’s license.