SUV driver charged in church van crash

Two members of Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn., were killed and others injured in a September wreck that authorities believe was caused by a driver high on a synthetic drug.

By Bob Allen

The driver of an SUV that crashed into a church van killing two people in east Tennessee Sept. 16 has been indicted on 36 counts including vehicular homicide and drug possession.

tyler schaefferPolice believe Tyler Schaeffer, 21, of Sevierville, Tenn., was under the influence of methylone, a synthetic derivative used in bath salts that mimics the effects of ecstasy, when the 1997 Chevrolet Blazer he was driving crossed left-of-center and crashed head-on into a vanload of youth from Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn., returning home from a weekend retreat.

The fiery collision killed van driver Jeff Trussell, 45, a beloved lay leader in the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated congregation, and Courteney Kaliszewski, 16, a high-school junior active in volunteer missions. Eleven other passengers were injured, some seriously, but they managed to get out of the van before it became engulfed in flames.

Schaeffer was taken to UT Medical Center with critical injuries. He left the hospital Oct. 22 in custody of the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office after being served an unrelated warrant from 2011 for aggravated burglary. He is being held on bond totaling more than $2 million at the Sevier County Jail.

A Sevier County grand jury charged Schaeffer with two counts of vehicular homicide, two counts of reckless vehicular homicide, 20 counts of reckless aggravated assault, nine counts of vehicular assault, one count of DUI, one count of possession of a controlled substance and one count of possession of a synthetic derivative, according to media reports.

He also faces two $10 million lawsuits filed in civil court by the families of Kaliszewski and Trussell. If he is found liable for their deaths, he cannot legally drive a car until he pays what he owes the families. The families said they want to prevent him from ever again getting behind the wheel.

Cedar Grove Pastor Bob Lynch told the Mountain Press in Sevierville, Tenn., that his congregation had been awaiting news that Schaeffer had been charged.

“We’re just glad that justice is starting to move. We’re anxious to see what comes,” he said. “We’re very disturbed that he was impaired apparently, and we’d like to see justice done. Two people were killed and others were injured very seriously in it.”

Lynch said the injured church members are all out of the hospital, but some face long-term rehabilitation or additional surgeries.

“Things are improving, but when you lose two people it’s hard to come back all the way,” Lynch said.

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Church van crash kills two