Oct. 27–A Lee Circuit judge on Friday sentenced a North Naples man accused of stopping on Interstate 75 and causing a fatal 2016 crash to half a decade behind bars.
Lee Circuit Judge Ramiro Manalich sentenced Zachary Kureth, 25, to 63 months — or just over five years — in state prison for his role in a crash that killed Robert Weinland, 79, of Sarasota, and seriously injured his wife, Gisela Weinland, 76.
“This is a case that has generated a lot of emotion, a lot of pain,” Manalich told the two families in the Fort Myers courtroom.
“It’s also generated a lot of hopeful comments, a lot of healing comments from both sides. … The events of this case have been very hard on everyone concerned with it.”
Kureth faced felony charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving causing serious bodily injury, and a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving causing damage to person or property. He pleaded no contest.
Authorities said Kureth was driving south on I-75 between the Daniels Parkway and Alico Road exits April 19, 2016, when he hit the brakes intentionally “in an act of road rage.” That caused the Weinlands behind him to have to slow to a stop, authorities said. Seconds later, a tractor-trailer plowed into the back of the Weinlands’ car.
Kureth, who had been placed on probation 11 days before the fatal crash because of a DUI conviction, initially told troopers that a car slowing down in front of him had triggered the crash, prosecutors said.
But video from a nearby warehouse showed that wasn’t the case, and Kureth, during a full-day sentencing hearing Tuesday, admitted he had been untruthful at first.
“To Mr. Kureth’s credit, he did admit that that had occurred,” Manalich said, “and that that was due to panic over his situation.”
Kureth had a “somewhat troubling driving history,” including citations alleging unlawful speeding, failure to obey a traffic signal and failure to obey a red light, Manalich said.
“His license was issued in 2007,” he said. “Beginning in 2011, there are a series of violations.”
Kureth’s scoresheet — a point system that provides sentencing guidelines in Florida — added up to 12 years in prison, and prosecutors asked for no fewer than 10 years.
However, Manalich said some of the testimony he heard Tuesday convinced him a lesser sentence was appropriate.
For one, Manalich said, he was impressed by the defense’s crash reconstruction expert for providing “a very thorough” and “competent analysis of the events.” That defense expert testified Tuesday his analysis showed that had the driver of the tractor-trailer been more attentive, the crash could have been avoided.
Although “this scenario occurred because of Mr. Kureth’s reckless driving,” Manalich said “that truck did nothing to avoid this collision.”
“That truck had 11 seconds from the time of braking to avoid this collision,” he said. “Had the truck driver merely been attentive, and not even braked, but taken his foot off the gas and moved to another lane, this would have been avoided.”
A judge last year found the truck driver, Runny Mederos, not guilty of two traffic infractions alleged in relation to the accident — driving too fast for conditions and using defective equipment, court records state. The defense’s crash expert testified Mederos was driving under the speed limit.
Manalich said he imposed a lighter sentence also because of testimony from Weinland’s family members, some of whom asked for a sentence of five years for Kureth.
“They have requested (a) sentence significantly below the minimum and below what the state is requesting,” Manalich said.
Their testimony indicated they want incarceration but don’t seek “vengeance” or “excessive punishment,” he said.
“I think it is remarkable for folks that were that vitally affected to have that type of attitude,” Manalich said.
After his ruling Friday, Kureth’s father and mother embraced their son, who wore a red jumpsuit and had tears in his eyes as he said his farewells to his family. His mother, Marianne Kureth, kissed him on the forehead, and his father, Lynn Kureth, told him, “You can do it,” as he hugged him.
The Kureths and Zachary Kureth’s defense attorneys declined to comment.
In a written statement to reporters, the Weinland family said they were “relieved that this chapter is concluded” and that the truck driver and trucking company “need to be held accountable for their role in this crash as well.”
A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family in Lee Circuit Court lists Mederos, the trucking company and Zachary Kureth as defendants and seeks “in excess of” $15,000 in damages, court records show.
A message left with the attorney listed as representing Mederos and the trucking company was not returned by Friday evening.
“Regardless of the outcome today, there are two families that have been deeply and permanently impacted,” the Weinlands wrote in their statement.
“Our family lost a brilliant and compassionate man, and together we will move forward continuing to support our mother and each other. The defendant’s family will also have their own journey.”
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