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Petaluma man faces trial in death of boy

Published: Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 6:51 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 6:51 a.m.

A Petaluma man was ordered Friday to stand trial on two felony child endangerment counts in the death last year of a 13-year-old boy who was on the way to a birthday outing at Lake Mendocino.

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Mike Krnaich

Michael Lee Krnaich “acted like a 12-year-old himself instead of a chaperone for 12-year-old boys,” Deputy District Attorney Matt Hubley said after the hearing.

Mendocino County Judge Richard Henderson ruled there was enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution of Krnaich, 42, on charges he was criminally negligent when he had eight children, ages 9 to 13, push his truck and boat/trailer when he ran out of gas on Highway 101 after ignoring the fuel warning light.

Trevor Smith, 13, of Petaluma, was killed when he slipped, fell and was crushed by the trailer as the rig picked up speed.

“None of this was necessary,” Henderson said at the conclusion of Friday's preliminary hearing.

There were a number of opportunities to avoid disaster, beginning shortly after the group left Petaluma in two vehicles, boys in the truck with Krnaich and girls in a car with his wife, according to testimony at the preliminary hearing.

Just outside of Santa Rosa, Krnaich told the boys his wife, Katie, was going to be angry because he hadn't put fuel in the truck before leaving Petaluma, District Attorney investigator Kevin Bailey testified.

The fuel warning light went just north of Hopland, but Krnaich continued driving past at least three Ukiah exits where there are gas stations, according to court testimony.

About 15 miles farther on, just short of their turnoff to the lake, the truck ran out of gas and came to a stop on an overpass. With insufficient room on the overpass shoulder, Krnaich instructed the boys to get out and push. Katie Krnaich pulled up behind the truck and asked the girls to get out and help push, according to testimony.

Michael Krnaich also got out of the truck, giving the wheel to his 12-year-old daughter until it began to pick up speed, at which time he took over, according to court testimony. Some of the children told investigators they didn't feel safe pushing the truck but that they did as they were asked because they'd been taught to respect adults, Bailey said.

As Katie Krnaich went to a nearby gas station to get fuel, the children continued to push the truck, even after they reached a portion of highway with an 8-foot-wide shoulder that could safely accommodate the truck and trailer, according to the testimony.

Despite his wife's trip for gasoline and offers of fuel from passersby, Krnaich urged the children to continue pushing the truck to the top of an incline, where it then began to move on its own.

Most of the children moved to the side of the road at that time but Smith's best friend, Kevin Zamanzadeh, jumped in the back of the pickup and Smith — who had been nearest the trailer hitch while pushing — tried to join him but slipped.

Zamanzadeh told investigators his friend yelled out “stop the truck,” but the boat trailer ran over his head and torso, according to court testimony. Smith was pronounced dead at Ukiah Valley Medical Center.

Krnaich told investigators he didn't know anything was wrong until he felt the trailer hit something.

During the hearing Hubley, the prosecutor, painted Krnaich as an irresponsible man-child. Krnaich was texting, taking pictures and posting to facebook while driving that day, according to court testimony.

“Rolling hella 13 and under girls on their way to Mendo for Michaela's birthday,” he wrote as a caption of a photo he took in the rear view mirror of the girls in his wife's car.

Krnaich's attorney, Chris Andrian, contended that the incident was tragic but still an accident. He said it's not unreasonable for someone to expect to drive at least 15 miles with their fuel warning light on. He also noted that another adult stopped to help push and another man took photos of the children pushing the vehicles and posted them online, thinking they were funny, not dangerous.

As for the texting and cell phone calls, he implied Krnaich could have been using a hands-free blue tooth.

“I just don't see how this rises to criminal conduct, certainly not felony criminal conduct,” he told Henderson.

Krnaich, a contractor who owns a BMX bike and skateboard park in Santa Rosa, faces up to seven years and four months in prison if convicted of the two charges, one of which is for placing Smith in danger, the other for endangering Zamanzadeh, who, like Smith, was in a dangerous spot between the truck and trailer while pushing.

Smith would have been in the eighth grade at Kenilworth Junior High School this school year. He was the youngest of three brothers, an enthusiastic wrestler, baseball player, sports fan and theater buff.

His parents, Joe and Pam Caralli Smith, attended Friday's hearing but declined to comment. They have filed a civil wrongful death suit against Mike and Katie Krnaich.

The Krnaiches also declined to comment.

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