IOWA CITY– Nearly a year after charges were filed and a little over a week from when his vehicular homicide trial was to begin, 20-year-old Zachary Swenka agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. Swenka, the driver in an October 2011 wreck near the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) High School, will formally enter his guilty plea and be sentenced on Friday, Sept. 6.
On that day in 2011, Swenka was eastbound on US Highway 6 in a 1996 Chevy Lumina with five passengers, fellow CCA cross country teammates on their way back to the high school after a practice session at Kent Park. According to the Iowa State Patrol’s accident investigation, Swenka was driving at a high rate of speed through the curve approximately 2-1/2 miles west of Tiffin near Half Moon Road when his tires dropped onto the gravel shoulder. He steered left, crossing the center line, and then veered back to the right in an attempt to avoid a head-on collision with a 2010 Honda Odyssey minivan driven by Bryan Cooling of Oxford.
However, the minivan struck the left rear corner of the Lumina, causing massive damage, according to the report. Mackenzie Lown, a 14-year old freshman at CCA, was ejected from the Lumina, despite wearing her seatbelt. Lown was pronounced dead at the scene. Daniel Brechtel, Dustin Cox, Chloe Keith and Claire Riggan were also injured, with Riggan being transported to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics by AirCare helicopter. Cooling and passenger Toni Cooling were also injured in the incident.
Following a lengthy investigation and review by Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, charges were filed against Swenka on Sept. 6, 2012, along with an arrest warrant. His initial appearance was on Sept. 7 and trial was set for Jan. 15, 2013. The trial was then reset to May 14, and pushed back again to Tuesday, Aug. 13. But on Friday, Aug. 2, Lyness’ office amended the trial information and District Court Judge Marsha Bergan wrote the order for arraignment. Court records indicate Swenka is expected to enter a guilty plea.
Vehicular homicide is a Class D felony, which the Iowa Code explains as, “A person commits a Class D felony when the person unintentionally causes the death of another while drag racing, in violation of section 321.278.” The code also spells out the penalty as imprisonment for no more than five years and a fine of at least $750, but not more than $7,500.
Involuntary manslaughter can be either a Class D felony or an aggravated misdemeanor. In Swenka’s case, it is an aggravated misdemeanor defined by the Iowa Code as, “…the person unintentionally causes the death of another person by the commission of an act in a manner likely to cause death or serious injury.” In the absence of a specific penalty, the Iowa Code states the penalty for an aggravated misdemeanor is a maximum of two years imprisonment and a fine of at least $625, and not more than $6,250.
Michael Lown and Kelly Smith, Lown’s parents, filed a lawsuit against Swenka and Lillian Olson, the owner of the Lumina Swenka was driving, in February 2012. That suit was dismissed with prejudice June 1, 2012. Lown and Smith then filed a lawsuit against the CCA Community School District on June 21. That suit alleges the district violated its own transportation policy by allowing Swenka to transport fellow students rather than employing the district’s resources. Trial is set for Monday, Dec. 2.