“Without Spencer” — Family heard in court as bus driver sentenced to 15 years

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, April 10, 2018

EDGARD — Bus driver Denis Yasmir Amaya Rodriguez was sentenced to 15 years in prison for instigating the 2016 crash that claimed the lives of St. John the Baptist Parish Fire Chief Spencer Chauvin and two others, but Chauvin’s widow, Jennifer, said the outcome didn’t matter much.

Denis Yasmir Amaya Rodriguez

Her family was already issued a life sentence that began the morning Spencer Chauvin was killed while working as a first responder on the scene of an accident.

Spencer Chauvin

“No matter what sentence is imposed upon you, ours will always be greater,” Jennifer Chauvin said as she addressed Rodriguez from the witness stand. “We were given a life to live without Spencer — a father, husband, son, brother, cousin and friend. Everything is different now, and it always will be.”

The sentence was announced by 40th Judicial District Judge J. Sterling Snowdy Monday at the Edgard courthouse and included five years in prison for each count of a three-count negligent homicide conviction issued in January.

Snowdy said the 15 years must be served consecutively, and Rodriguez must also pay a $5,000 fine in addition to $315 in court costs.

“After the trial, we were profoundly concerned with your lack of judgment and lack of ability to keep others safe,” Snowdy said. “The negligence you have shown has had a profound effect on so many people. A community you did not know came to know you.”

The fatal crash occurred Aug. 28 2016, on Interstate 10 near LaPlace.

Rodriguez, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, was driving a party bus full of people from Metairie to a Baton Rouge worksite, rushing to beat morning traffic when he slammed into Spencer Chauvin’s parked fire truck.

Chauvin, 36, and two other St. John Parish firefighters were tossed over a bridge and plummeted into a swamp. The other firefighters survived with injuries.

The series of collisions initiated by the party bus also claimed the lives of Jermaine Starr, 21, and Vontarous Kelly, 33, of Moss Point, Miss., as they traveled to join clean-up efforts in Baton Rouge.

Snowdy reminded Rodriguez that each of the lives lost caused irreparable damage.

The St. Joan of Arc Fun Run was dedicated to Spencer Chauvin, who was an SJA graduate. Many of his family members joined in the walk. Among them were, from left, his children Jude and Jade, his wife Jennifer, his sister and nephew Brittany and Bentley Borne, and his mother Donna. Jennifer wore his firefighter gear as she accompanied her family on the course.

Jennifer Chauvin’s worst fears came true when she had to awaken her sleeping son, Jude, 7 at the time, and tell him his father was never coming home.

Jennifer Chauvin’s daughter, Jade, celebrated her fifth birthday the day after her father’s memorial service, something she was too young to fully comprehend.

Prior to the sentencing, the prosecution played a video in which Chauvin’s children reminisced on favorite memories with their father. Jude recalled playing soccer with his father every evening and taking frequent trips to the Aquarium and Insectarium, two of Spencer Chauvin’s favorite places.

Every Sunday, the family would attend church, meet Spencer for lunch and head to one of the fire stations he worked at.

Rodriguez, a father of six, expressed regret for leading the crash that made every Sunday following Aug. 28, 2016, take a different path.

“I want to tell you that in my heart, I feel very bad at this moment,” Rodriguez said, in Spanish, with the assistance of a translator.

“I’m a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ for 35 years. I have never wished to take the life of another human being.”

During the three-day January trial, a defense lead by attorney Shannon Batiste argued the party bus was a “death bus” with ineffective brakes.

Rodriguez said he accepts the sentence dictated by the court, though he doesn’t consider himself guilty of negligent homicide.

“I don’t consider myself truthfully guilty, but I need to obey the laws,” Rodriguez said, adding God will be the judge of his fate in the end. “God bless the jury and all of the people that are here.”

The defense has 30 days to appeal the sentence. The court will reconvene May 14 to address misdemeanor matters related to the 2016 crash.