Experts

Experts spar over claim of taxi malfunctioning in fatal crash

Tatijana Janko walked to her train station one summer morning five years ago past the aftermath of a devastating car wreck.

Streetlights were toppled and sparking. There were skid marks on the ground and a gathering crowd. A crumpled taxicab had flipped and rolled and caught fire.

It was a startling scene, but the personal horror would come later. Janko learned soon afterward that her husband, Eric Kerestes, had been struck by the speeding taxicab and killed.

Kerestes, a promising 30-year-old engineer who married his college sweetheart, was pronounced dead at the scene. Janko, stunned, went to the morgue to gather his belongings, including his mangled wedding ring.

“I tried not to imagine what had happened to his arm, and the rest of him,” she said Tuesday, testifying at the trial of the taxi’s driver, John Kesse, who was charged with reckless homicide.

In the moments before Janko passed by, Kesse’s Checker cab had sped down Milwaukee Avenue, blowing past stoplights and weaving into oncoming lanes. When it reached Chicago Avenue, it slammed into a curb, crashed into light poles and struck Kerestes, who was thrown into the air and landed in a parking lot some 200 feet away.

As jurors began to hear the case this week, prosecutors described Kesse as thoughtless and rash, a driver zooming down a city street without regard for the passenger in his cab or the safety of the public.

Kesse’s defense attorneys countered by arguing the cabbie had no choice — a random electrical problem made the taxi accelerate, they said, telling the jury the car was no longer in Kesse’s control when it plowed into Kerestes.

A bright future

On the day his life ended, Kerestes had accomplished much, and was working toward more.

Described by his family as a whip-smart scientist, Kerestes was a graduate student who already had two degrees in engineering. He was killed on his way to his job at a construction firm, where his work included runway projects at O’Hare International Airport.

Kerestes took to engineering like he was born for it, according to his father, Bob Kerestes. His son was thrilled to get Lego sets every childhood Christmas and would build them flawlessly.

“At an early age he was already a technical little guy,” Kerestes said of the boy who would become an Eagle Scout.

Eric Kerestes was hoping that one day he would run his own engineering business, his parents said.

They have established a scholarship in his name at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — an effort that has in some ways reminded them of the great potential that was lost, said his mother, Carol Kerestes.

“It makes us proud of Eric, but it also is really sad for me because he’s not there,” she said. “It’s great that we can do something in his name, and that people will remember him.”

I heard ‘voom’

A native of Ghana who has lived in the United States for 40 years, Kesse is well-respected in his community of fellow African immigrants, his attorney, Bruce Rafalson, told the Tribune. Friends said at prior court hearings that Kesse, a married father of seven, never drank alcohol and was a conscientious driver.

Kesse took the witness stand himself Wednesday, answering questions so hastily he was often warned against talking over his examiners.

The Ford Crown Victoria he drove was operating normally when he stopped at a red light just after picking up his first fare on Aug. 14, 2012, near Division Street and Milwaukee Avenue about 6 a.m., he said.

He didn’t notice trouble until he turned on to Milwaukee at a green light, he told the jury.

“All of a sudden I heard ‘voom,’ and the cab took off,” Kesse testified. “It was speeding. … I tried to keep on braking, but it doesn’t stop.”

Kesse said he weaved in and out of his lane in an attempt to avoid cars that had slowed or stopped in front of him, and ran red lights because he could not brake, he said, eventually thinking his safest option would be to try to hit a light pole to stop the car. That was his aim when the cab hit the curb at Milwaukee and Chicago avenues, Kesse testified, and he lost control.

When questioned by prosecutors, Kesse said he never honked his horn or flashed his lights to try to alert other drivers that something was wrong. He did not put the car in neutral, he acknowledged, or try to hit a different light pole earlier in his path down Milwaukee Avenue.

Kesse’s passenger at the time of the crash, Michael Kim, testified in court this week that everything seemed normal when he got in Kesse’s cab on his way to work.

Then Kesse blew past a red light at the corner of Noble and Milwaukee, and Kim noticed the cab was speeding, he said.

“I noticed things were just flashing by, and it was much like a blur,” he said.

The next thing he knew, the cab was airborne, and he was being thrown around in the back seat. Kim suffered a spinal injury and a bruised lung, but was able to crawl out of a side window and stumble away, he said.

Did the cab malfunction?

The kind of sudden acceleration that led to Kesse veering off the road at high speed is highly unlikely to be caused by a malfunction in a modern automobile, according to prosecutors’ expert witnesses. A mechanic hired by police to inspect the taxi in the days after the wreck said nothing was wrong with the mechanisms that control acceleration.

And if something had gone drastically wrong, the car’s fail-safes would have been activated and prevented the car from reaching such speeds, said Ryan Welsch, who performed the inspection.

“None of the components failed in any way that could cause a scenario like that,” Welsch said from the witness stand this week. “If it fails, it goes into shutdown mode, limited mode, 30-mile-an hour-mode.”

But a forensic engineer who testified for Kesse’s defense said the car likely sped out of Kesse’s control due to a freak electrical issue that would not have been detectable in the days after the crash. Interference within the car’s electrical system sent an “unwanted signal” to the car’s computer, Samuel Sero said, the kind of problem that would have left no trace.

“This is sort of the consummate random event,” Sero testified Wednesday.

He reached his conclusion by process of elimination rather than running tests, he said, but the lack of physical evidence for such an occurrence is unimportant: “Whether you can see damage or see a footprint is irrelevant,” he said.

That analysis doesn’t meet the basic scientific standards of proof, testified Thomas Livernois, an electrical engineer called by prosecutors Thursday to rebut Sero’s testimony.

“It’s sheer speculation,” Livernois said of Sero’s conclusions. “It’s not scientific.”

There has never been a confirmed case of electromagnetic interference causing the kind of unintended acceleration Kesse described, Livernois said.

“It cannot happen in the real world, no one’s been able to make it happen even in a laboratory,” Livernois said. “And believe me, people have tried.”

A prior crash

Jurors at the trial have not heard it, but Kesse was involved in another serious wreck 14 years earlier, in 1998. Witnesses at the time said he ran a red light near the intersection of Chicago and Inner Lake Shore Drive.

Kesse’s cab struck a station wagon making a left turn, then careened toward a Toyota Corolla, caving in its dashboard and leaving the driver with a fractured femur and a broken hip.

A review of Cook County records by the Tribune after Kerestes’ death found that Kesse was not ticketed for any traffic offenses in the 1998 wreck — likely because of a conflict at the scene over who was at fault.

Kesse testified in a deposition after that crash that he had a green light when another driver improperly made a left turn and hit his cab, pushing it into the Toyota, according to court records. The cab company later settled the Toyota driver’s personal-injury lawsuit for $400,000 without admitting liability.

Kesse’s history of driving infractions is otherwise unremarkable for a veteran driver. By the time of the crash that killed Kerestes in 2012, he had amassed 33 tickets for alleged moving violations, records show, but most were dismissed or pleaded down to supervision, which would not appear on his permanent driving record. His last conviction for a traffic offense before the 2012 crash came in 1998 for speeding.

After Kesse was charged criminally, he filed a civil lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company that is currently pending in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleging that a defect caused the car’s “sudden unintended acceleration.”

A family’s vigil

Bob and Carol Kerestes have made the 130-mile trip from downstate Bloomington to Chicago for almost every one of Kesse’s hearings — nearly 60 times in the five years since Kesse was charged, Bob Kerestes told the Tribune in a phone interview Wednesday.

Kerestes said he made a promise at his son’s graveside that he would try not to miss any court dates.

“I sort of think he’s there and he’s asking me for help and I love him,” he said.

Closing arguments in the trial are slated to begin Friday morning. Bob and Carol Kerestes plan to be in court again, along with their son’s widow, Tatijana Janko.

“This week has been really tough,” Janko told the Tribune after testimony had concluded Thursday. “But I really hope that there’s some closure.”

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @crepeau

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