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Courts: Truck driver in NC Amtrak crash that injured 55 is a felon and repeat traffic offender

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — The truck driver whose failure to maneuver an oversized rig through a railroad crossing derailed an Amtrak train and injured 55 people this week is a convicted felon with a long history of traffic citations, court records show.

John Devin Black, 43, has been cited for at least a dozen traffic violations, including speeding and driving with a revoked license multiple times, according to records reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press.

In Illinois, Black was arrested in December 2012 and charged with exceeding the permitted weight limit on his load. He was quickly released on a $177 secured bond, but then failed to appear in court the following month.

Black also served prison time in 1997 after being convicted of felony child abuse in North Carolina, and his other criminal convictions include assaulting a woman, violating a domestic violence protective order, and repeatedly writing worthless checks.

Black does have a valid commercial driver's license, but did not need to pass a criminal background check to get it, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles confirmed Wednesday.

No charges have been filed against Black in relation Monday's crash, though law enforcement officials say that is still under consideration.

An Associated Press reporter walked past the no-trespassing sign on the front porch of Black's home in the rural community of Claremont, North Carolina, and knocked on the door seeking comment about his record.

Black didn't answer, but shortly after the reporter left a note and a phone number, a spokeswoman for his employer, Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, called.

Asked about Black's driving record and other details of the accident, company spokeswoman Jeanette Landreth declined to comment, and said Black won't talk either. Turner specializes in moving huge, heavy equipment.

PHOTO: A truck passes over the train tracks near a sign listing an emergency number for railroad problems on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Halifax, N.C.  A train collided with a truck, Monday injuring 55 people.  The truck with a state trooper escort become stuck in the crossing but no calls were made to Amtrak about the problem, even though the sign should have been visible to the truck driver.  (AP Photo /Jonathan Drew)
A truck passes over the train tracks near a sign listing an emergency number for railroad problems on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Halifax, N.C. A train collided with a truck, Monday injuring 55 people. The truck with a state trooper escort become stuck in the crossing but no calls were made to Amtrak about the problem, even though the sign should have been visible to the truck driver. (AP Photo /Jonathan Drew)

Before Monday's crash, its 161 trucks were involved in 13 significant highway crashes over the last two years, resulting in nine injuries. Turner has a "satisfactory" safety rating, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records.

As workers finished clearing debris from the derailment site in Halifax, North Carolina, investigators were piecing together why emergency railroad dispatchers apparently weren't told that Black was struggling to negotiate a tight turn across the tracks with a load nearly 16 feet wide and tall, weighing 127 tons and stretching for 164 feet.

The locomotive's "black box" was recovered, and investigators will review the state permit that enabled Turner to exceed length and weight limits while hauling the electrical distribution facility to New Jersey.

The route, including the fateful turn at the railroad crossing, was designed to avoid several highway overpasses along Interstate 95 that would have been too low to get under with such a tall load, officials said.

Long-established protocols require truck drivers and trooper escorts to "clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they're doing," said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official.

Failing that, a toll-free emergency number prominently displayed at each crossing reaches dispatchers who can radio trains to stop.

Federal regulations require transport companies to conduct background investigations before hiring truckers, and to review their driving records each year, said V. Paul Herbert, a commercial vehicle safety expert who has testified in 175 trials.

There's nothing in the rules that disqualifies a driver with a criminal record from getting a commercial license, as long as the crime wasn't committed while driving a truck, he said.

"If that crime was committed during the operation of a commercial motor vehicle, then yes, they could be disqualified," Hebert said.


Biesecker reported from Raleigh and Weiss from Claremont in North Carolina. Associated Press reporters Tammy Webber in Chicago and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed.

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Video:
PHOTO: An Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer that got stuck on the tracks while trying to make a difficult left-hand turn Monday. At least 55 people were injured. (March 10)
An Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer that got stuck on the tracks while trying to make a difficult left-hand turn Monday. At least 55 people were injured. (March 10) PHOTO: Cellphone video recorded by Leslie Cipriani shows an Amtrak train hitting a stalled tractor-trailer in Halifax, North Carolina Monday. (March 9)
Cellphone video recorded by Leslie Cipriani shows an Amtrak train hitting a stalled tractor-trailer in Halifax, North Carolina Monday. (March 9)

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