January 24, 2019 05:15 PM
The family of a man killed by a light rail train is calling for changes to Minnesota state law after prosecutors say a 'loophole' prevented them from filing criminal charges against the train's operator.
Nicholas Westlake, 29, and his girlfriend, Neli Petkova, 26, were driving southbound on Eustis Street in St. Paul the evening of July 15, 2017 when a westbound light-rail train ran a red light along University Avenue and collided with their car.
Westlake, the driver, died as a result of injuries he suffered in the crash. Petkova, in the passenger's seat, suffered a compound fracture of her arm, as well as serious cuts and bruises.
"I did not even know what was happening," Petkova said. "It just happened so quick. We both turned to the left and that was it."
Rescuers jumped in immediately and worked frantically to cut off the car's roof in an effort to save Westlake. However, he died two days later at the hospital, ending the couple's hopes of Olympic stardom as a ballroom dance team and their life together as partners.
"There's no moving on, there's no such thing," Petkova said. "There's maybe going about your day and trying to live with it. Trying to live with the pain, manage the suffering, manage the depression, and all of that.
"But there is not really a moving on from this."
A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation found that El Maarouf could not face criminal charges for running the red light because light rail operators are excluded from traffic laws in Minnesota.
In an email sent to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson wrote “… there can be no criminal charges in this case for violation of the traffic code because it does not apply to the operation of a rail train.”
Surveillance video obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS shows the Green Line rail train struck their car about 9 p.m.
According to Collision Reconstruction Report, the train operator told investigators he had a "vertical bar" on the traffic signal, indicating he could proceed into the intersection.
However, surveillance video captured by a camera on the front of the train clearly shows the traffic light was red and the train signal along the track displayed a white horizontal bar - indicating the driver must stop.
Instead, the operator, Abdellatif El Maarouf, drove the train into the intersection where it collided with Westlake's car, pushing it down the tracks.
A surveillance camera inside the train recorded video of the train operator holding his head in his hands.
But despite a finding by Metro Transit investigators that El Maarouf blew through the red light and caused the deadly crash, prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against him.
A Metro Transit investigation also found Westlake’s speed, 44 miles-per-hour in a 30 miles-per-hour zone, contributed to the crash.
Prosecutors with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office determined they could not prove El Maarouf was grossly negligent because he was not on his phone, wasn’t speeding and honked his horn before entering the intersection.
Now, Westlake's family wants the law changed so light rail operators are held to the same standards as motorists, including bus drivers.
"Metro Transit, the government, is playing with a completely different set of rules and that's not fair and it needs to change," said Peter Westlake, Nic's older brother.
"A bus driver who made the same mistake would be subject to traffic law but a light rail, because it's on rails, is classified differently and is not subject to the traffic code."
Olson, in her email, agreed current Minnesota statutes need to be updated.
"... we determined there is a loophole that should be corrected in current Minnesota law that prevented charges from being filed," wrote Olson.
Westlake’s family also says more video evidence should be available to investigators in crashes like the one involving Nic and Neli.
That’s because despite a half-dozen different camera angles capturing just about every single frame of the moments leading up to and the moments after the crash, one key piece of video is missing.
There are no cameras focused directly on the light rail operator in his cab to see exactly what he was doing just prior to the crash.
Metro Transit does not have cameras trained on drivers in any of its vehicles - be it a light rail train or bus, according to spokesperson Howie Padilla.
Westlake's family hopes his death inspires tougher train transportation laws at the Capitol.
"We need to make decisions about policy and about changes that will keep this from happening," Lisa Westlake, Nic's mother. "Otherwise, what would be the point of taking these pictures? What would be the point of recording this?
"(Change) could be the good that comes from this tragedy," she added. "We want to be the voice for that. We want to be the voice that causes something to change."
"We have no idea what the driver was doing," Peter Westlake said.
"All we know is he completely missed the red light, missed the stopped parallel traffic, missed the active cross traffic, and went into an intersection he shouldn't have been in."
"This is something you don't realize could happen to you until it does happen," added Seth Westlake, Nic's younger brother.
"If we can help the next family, that's a big deal for us."
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reached out to Metro Transit for comment, but Padilla declined the request, citing pending litigation.
The Westlake family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Metro Transit and El Maarouf in December.
"We're looking to get justice for Nic," said Bob Westlake, Nic's dad. "That's why we had to bring the suit and hopefully something can change."
Abdellatif El Maarouf was initially fired by Metro Transit, but his employment was reinstated on appeal. He currently works as a light rail vehicle helper. In that capacity, he fuels and helps clean trains, but does not operate them.
In their report on the crash, Metro Transit investigators said El Maarouf declined to participate in an interview regarding the crash.
The Westlake family also launched a website, Nicwestlakememorial.com, devoted to Nic's memory and to the changes they are pursuing at the capitol.
Jay Kolls and Tim Vetscher
Updated: January 24, 2019 05:15 PM
Created: January 23, 2019 02:53 PM
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