Court Gavel

Hosea Holcomb testified he had no idea he had struck and killed a man with his tractor-trailer on Interstate 70 in Washington County last January and thought it was a “near miss” when he swerved around a disabled rig parked on the shoulder of the highway.

The 28-year-old truck driver from Emporium, Va., took the stand Friday in the final day of his rescheduled non-jury trial in Washington County Court and testified he assumed he had narrowly avoided disaster, so he continued on his way as though nothing had happened.

“To me, it was a near miss,” he said.

But Holcomb’s truck fatally struck John Marvin Isenberg III, who was kneeling beside his tractor-trailer while it was parked on the shoulder near the interchange with the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Fallowfield Township. Isenberg, 33, of Toronto, Ohio, died at the scene of the Jan. 11, 2021 incident, while Holcomb drove another 12 miles until state police stopped his vehicle near the Smithton exit in Westmoreland County.

Holcomb was on trial facing charges of homicide by vehicle and accident involving death, along with several traffic citations. It was the third day of the trial, which began in December but was delayed for more than a month before it concluded Friday. Following closing arguments, Judge Gary Gilman said that he would issue a verdict “shortly,” although it was not known when he would make his decision.

Defense attorney Michael Waltman put his client on the stand and asked him to explain his version of events in the hours that led up to the incident. Holcomb said he awoke after sleeping in his cab in London, Ohio, shortly before 3 a.m. on the day of the incident and picked up his load in nearby West Jefferson just outside of Columbus. But by 6 a.m., he was still tired, so he stopped in Washington and took a power nap for about 45 minutes.

He said his mind soon went into “auto-pilot” and he doesn’t remember much about the drive on I-70 until he came upon the disabled tractor-trailer at Exit 37A that leads to Route 43. Holcomb explained his actions while watching a dashboard camera video that was played in court showing simultaneous angles looking out the front windshield and another one facing back at him while driving. After passing Isenberg’s vehicle and swerving to miss it, Holcomb could be seen snapping his head to the right and shouting, “Oh, (expletive).”

“I was making sure I could see nothing,” Holcomb testified, meaning he wanted to make sure he didn’t strike the rig. “It was a close call (so) it was a natural reaction.”

Later in the video, Holcomb can be heard saying “Thank you, God” before he performs the sign of the cross on himself “since it was such a close call.” Holcomb testified that he would have stopped if he knew he struck the disabled rig or a person, but he said he never saw Isenberg.

In cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney John Friedmann said those actions showed Holcomb knew or should have known that he was involved in an accident, which would have required him to stop.

“There’s that question in your mind,” Friedmann said. “In that moment, you weren’t sure if you hit something or not.”

He also questioned Holcomb on his ability to pilot the tractor-trailer while he was drifting into other lanes and appeared to be nodding off at times, which was relevant to whether he was guilty of homicide by vehicle due to negligence behind the wheel.

“You would agree with me that the nap in Washington, while it may have refreshed you, wasn’t enough?” Friedmann said.

“I didn’t know I was falling asleep,” Holcomb responded.

Friedmann played a portion of the dashboard video that showed Holcomb yawning four times and appearing to nearly fall asleep in the moments before coming upon Isenberg’s truck. Friedmann also noted that Holcomb could have pulled over at rest stops at the Bentleyville or Monongahela/Centerville exits once he realized his “cat nap” in Washington wasn’t enough to keep him alert.

“There’s a second yawn,” Friedmann said. “Big one there.”

During closing arguments, Waltman said that the prosecution never definitively proved it was Holcomb’s truck that struck Isenberg, and even if it was, his client had no clue he was involved in an accident. Waltman said his client cooperated with police and gave consistent statements that he didn’t know he had hit a person.

“He didn’t know he was in an accident,” Waltman said. “He didn’t believe he was in an accident.”

Friedmann countered that Holcomb’s actions immediately after passing Isenberg’s tractor-trailer indicated he knew something was wrong. He added that Holcomb’s exhaustion behind the wheel was enough to prove the prosecution’s case.

“He was falling asleep driving an 80,000-pound vehicle,” Friedmann said. “That, itself, is a danger on the road.”

The prosecutor added that Holcomb may not have intended to hurt anyone that day, but his actions undoubtedly caused someone’s death.

“All the way around, it’s a tragedy,” Friedmann said. “It’s not a moral failing. It is what it is. Unfortunately, because of that, Mr. Isenberg is dead.”

Holcomb is free on $250,000 unsecured bond while he awaits Gilman’s verdict.

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