A man who claimed he was being chased by zombies after crashing a stolen semi, striking several vehicles, was charged Wednesday with a half-dozen felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon, court records say.
Jerimiah Hartline, 19, of Tennessee, pleaded not guilty to assault with a deadly weapon - a semi truck - reckless driving, hit-and-run, vehicle theft and other charges. He is being held with bail set at $500,000. The crash injured seven people and blocked Interstate 15 for hours in Temecula.
In a jailhouse interview with California Highway Patrol officers, Hartline explained that he believed zombies were chasing him and clinging to the semi, which was hauling a trailer full of strawberries, Officer Nathan Baer, a CHP spokesman, said Wednesday. Hartline said he was swerving to try to shake the zombies off.
Hartline had ridden with trucker Daniel Martinez, 37, from Tennessee, Baer said. Martinez had picked up the strawberries in San Diego County and was headed for Maryland when he stopped at the weigh station on northbound Interstate 15 in Rainbow on Saturday evening. While he was out of the truck, Hartline got behind the wheel and sped off, Baer said.
As he swerved down I-15, Hartline struck several cars, injuring seven people, one of them severely. He lost control near Temecula Parkway and the truck flipped onto its side, blocking all of the northbound lanes, CHP officials said. Hartline tried to run away and demanded a ride with a driver who had stopped to help, but bystanders detained him until officers arrived, Baer said.
It took hours to right the truck and clear the freeway.
In court Wednesday at the Southwest Justice Center in French Valley, prosecutor Scott Mason told the judge a woman in one of the vehicles suffered major head trauma, a severed artery and other injuries and had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital.
An update on her condition was not available Wednesday.
Hartline, wearing orange jail clothes and shackles, fidgeted and sniffled as he sat in the courtroom. He started crying at one point, gazing up at the ceiling.
Judge Judith Clark agreed with the prosecutor's request to set his bail higher than usual, deeming him a flight risk.
Thomas Stillman, the deputy public defender representing Hartline at his arraignment, declined to comment.
Initially, there had been confusion over the identity of the person driving the semi when it crashed. Hartline was in an altered state, saying only that he was being chased by zombies, and Martinez did not immediately disclose that Hartline had been his passenger, Baer said. The North Carolina-based trucking company, RC Scott Transport, apparently does not allow passengers, Baer said.
Authorities could not confirm whether Hartline's altered state was the result of drug use.
Margie Hammersley, director of the Temecula-Murrieta Community Pantry, said the boxes of strawberries left intact after the crash were collected and distributed to local food pantries.
Copyright 2013 The Press Enterprise, Inc. All Rights Reserved