Wrong-way driver that forced semi off road found ‘not guilty’ of careless driving

A wrong-way motorist that caused a big rig to overturn back in October, was acquitted Tuesday of careless driving.

Christine Hockenberry, 49, did not attended her trial on Friday. Her lawyer entered her plea of not guilty of the citations she received regarding the incident earlier in the fall.

On October 24, Hockenberry drove her SUV the wrong side of Route 222, in Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania. She traveled north in the southbound side for about seven miles.

“She made it all the way from somewhere in Spring Township, all the way up here to Muhlenberg Township,” said Muhlenberg police Sgt. Joel Marino.

Several vehicles placed 911 calls as they swerved to avoid her. Police were working on getting out there to her, but there wasn’t enough time. A tractor trailer on its way to the landfill came upon her as she approached Route 61.

“I saw the tractor-trailer coming toward her and at the last minute the tractor-trailer swerved into the median to lay over his truck to avoid a head-on crash,” said police Sgt. Joseph M. Brown, an off-duty officer that witnessed the accident.

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The truck driver, 50 year old John Kovach, swerved to avoid her, but the force of the turn caused the truck to flip, falling on its side on the grass.

“He got off the shoulder here and just banked over, and he was loaded and it upset the truck, and this is where it ended,” said Nicholas Grimm, a representative of Luzerne County-based Franzosa Trucking. “It’s just garbage heading to the landfill.”

The crash destroyed the cab, and poured trash out onto the highway. Brown’s dash cam caught the truck overturning.

The driver suffered minor injuries, and was taken to a local hospital.

As for Hockenberry, she did not stop at the scene of the accident. She kept driving, leading to a frenzied chase as both police and drivers responded to the situation.

“I was just concerned she was going to hurt more people as she continued,” Brown said, “because she was just in the mode where she wasn’t going to stop and everyone needed to get out of her way.”

Brown followed her from the parallel side of the highway, clocking her at about 60 miles per hour, watching her sweep through traffic.

“I’m watching every time a car’s coming toward her and she’s almost taking them out before they (the other driver) go out of the way,” he said.

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She got off the highway, at an exit ramp for Allentown Pike, blocked by vehicles coming from the other direction. They moved out of the way for her, and she sped off in the correct direction. Brown followed her to a Wal-Mart parking lot, where Sgt. Joel Marino was headed to her.

“I was traveling north on Fifth Street Highway because dispatch reported she was trying to turn right off of the on-ramp onto Business Route 222 to come southbound,” Sg. Marino said. “[Sgt. Brown] was beeping his horn and flashing his lights at me and I spun around and got her at Wal-Mart.”

Marino and a couple of other officers finally arrested Hockenberry and sent her to a mental health facility for evaluation.

Kovach was lauded as a hero for avoiding the collision.

“The fact that no one was killed and no one was seriously injured is a testament to him intentionally risking his life to save everyone else’s life by doing the maneuver he did.” Brown said. “The lady for sure would have been killed in a head-on, and a bunch of other drivers around it, too.”

It took crews the better part of the afternoon to clean up the highway mess.

In late November, Hockenberry received three traffic citations for the incident, but not criminal charges. She was cited for driving at an unsafe speed, driving over a divider, and careless driving. On Tuesday, District Judge Dean R. Patton in Muhlenberg, found her not guilty of the careless driving charge. The other charges still stood, and she has been ordered to pay $240 in fines.