SAN ANTONIO – More than five years after the death of Emily Zaltsman, the man accused of killing the teen in a September 2017 distracted driving crash has still not gone to trial.
Paul Soechting, 27, is accused of driving his Jeep Rubicon into the back of the car Emily was riding in while it was at a standstill in traffic on Loop 1604, crushing the 13-year-old inside the backseat.
A witness told San Antonio police Soechting appeared to be looking down at his phone prior to the wreck.
Investigators noted that Soechting’s vehicle did not brake before striking the back of the Lexus sedan driven by Emily’s grandfather, case records obtained by KSAT Investigates reveal.
Despite a mountain of evidence against Soechting, including cell phone and vehicle crash data, his manslaughter case has languished in court.
The case has been assigned a trial date 15 times since Soechting was indicted in 2018, and 15 times that date has come and gone without a jury being selected.
Soechting is free on bond while waiting for trial. He was arrested in Comal County in June 2020 on unrelated criminal charges. Prosecutors disposed of one of the charges.
Judge Frank Castro, whose court is presiding over the Bexar County case, blamed the delayed trial on a long list of reasons ranging from COVID court stoppages to him prioritizing cases in which defendants are in jail awaiting trial.
“I think closure is a very real thing. It’s not going to bring Emily back. That’s not going to ever happen, but I do believe justice needs to be served and everyone does deserve to have that,” said Emily’s mother, Karin Zaltsman.
Emily’s last day
Karin Zaltsman spent Emily’s last day alive substituting at her daughter’s school: Rawlinson Middle School.
“I actually got to be in her classroom teaching history for her. I got to eat lunch with her and a friend,” said Zaltsman.
But hours after the school day ended, Zaltsman learned that her daughter and father had been in a car wreck.
After arriving at University Hospital, Zaltsman was given the worst news imaginable.
“They said, ‘the mother’s here.’ And I just knew, that’s not a good sign,” said Zaltsman. “Left side was waiting room, right side was consultation room and they said, ‘why don’t you come over here.’ And I was just like, ‘I don’t want to go in that room. It’s not the good room.’”
Emily, a multi-sport athlete, honor roll student and member of the orchestra who wanted to one day become a doctor, died of severe trauma to her head, her autopsy report shows.
“I think about all her friends that are in their first two weeks of college and I know Emily would have most likely been at UT, or A&M, or somewhere,” said Zaltsman during an interview last month at her home.
Emily’s grandfather was seriously injured in the crash but has since recovered.
He is still unable to speak about the incident, Zaltsman said.
He and Soechting settled a civil lawsuit over the crash out of court in December 2018, Bexar County court records show.
A history of distracted driving
Soechting, who is deaf and does not speak, communicated with SAPD investigators using sign language with a family member who arrived at the scene.
Soechting stated he was looking at a tall flag on the other side of the freeway and when he looked back to his lanes of traffic, he slammed on his brakes prior to the collision but was unable to stop.
Soechting at first agreed to show officers his phone, but then had to be told to put it down after it appeared he was deleting data from the phone, SAPD records show.
A witness told police a much different story about Soechting’s actions immediately before the wreck.
A woman riding on a motorcycle said Soechting passed them on the right a mile before the crash.
“She said she looked directly at him for what appeared to be about 10 seconds as he was passing them and he was texting the entire time,” an SAPD report states.
“I could see his eyes looking down at the phone,” the woman told police.
Just four and a half months before the fatal crash, in April 2017, Soechting caused another distracted driving collision near Seguin, state records show.
First responders in Guadalupe County responding to the intersection of W. Kingsbury Street and FM 464 found Soechting in a rolled-over Ford Explorer.
The crash investigation revealed that Soechting had run a red light, causing a vehicle driving through the intersection to crash into the passenger side of his vehicle.
Soechting later stated to investigators that he was checking his mirrors prior to the crash and looked up to see that the light had turned red, Texas Department of Transportation records show.
Judge Castro defends court backlog
In late June 2020, Soechting was arrested by New Braunfels police on charges of marijuana possession under two ounces and unlawful carry of a weapon.
Prosecutors in the marijuana case filed a non-prosecution affidavit in January 2021, clearing Soechting of criminal wrongdoing in that case.
The unlawful carry of a weapon charge is pending, and Soechting is tentatively scheduled to appear in court in Comal County in early November, court records show.
In Bexar County, Soechting’s manslaughter case is assigned to the 399th District Court and Judge Frank Castro.
Bexar County Judicial Management data for the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2021-2022, the latest bar graph data made available for felony court caseloads, shows that Castro had a pending case backlog that was nearly 300 cases higher than that of the next nearest judge.
Judge Castro’s active caseload had reached 1,647, the bar graph data shows.
Judge Castro’s backlog was under 500 cases at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but had risen to nearly 1,100 by March of last year, data shared with KSAT Investigates shows.
By late March of this year, that caseload had soared to over 1,500, records show.
Judge Castro released a lengthy statement defending his court’s backlog and county officials said he has made an effort in recent weeks to address it.
In a written statement, Judge Castro told KSAT:
“Paul Soechting’s case was indicted over four years ago, however, COVID stopped jury trials for over two of those four years. Both the state and defense have disclosed to me this is a complicated case that needed more time for phone experts, deaf interpreters, and other issues. It should also be noted both the state and defense have agreed on all resets both parties have requested. I have given jury trial priority to cases where the defendants are in jail and Mr. Soechting has been and is currently on bond. I have tried many cases to juries when COVID restrictions have allowed and at this point in time I am within five inmates of being the third best district court out of ten in regards to jail population. It is also my understanding my court has resolved all our pending capital murder cases. Now that my jail population is under control, I am in a better position to give more attention to bond cases. In fact, in the past few weeks my court has significantly reduced our pending cases. I strongly feel in the next month that pending number will continue to drop and be more aligned with the next closest court. In addition, the judge of that next closest court which is the 186th and myself are the judges of the Felony Veterans Treatment Court (FVTC). The FVTC is a specialty court that helps local veterans with histories of military trauma who have been charged with felonies. It is a very intensive court that takes a lot of our attention and time. The judge of the 186th will be retiring in a few months and I will be the only judge running the FVTC for some time. We preside over the FVTC for no additional pay or benefits other than to help our local veterans in this program. The majority of the criminal district judges are not running specialty courts. Prior to running the FVTC and towards the end of the first year of COVID my court was the top court in lowest pending cases. Lastly, this case is set for trial on October 18th and I intend to have this case tried on that date so both sides can have their day in court. However, as in every case sometimes scheduling issues arise with the attorneys or with pending inmate cases taking priority over bond cases.”
Ana Amici, general administrative counsel for the criminal district courts, said via email Castro’s pending caseload was back down to around 1,200 cases as of Sept. 25.
“Additionally, when the number of cases to be indicted into the court are considered, the 399th overall numbers are on par with other courts’ overall caseloads. When considering both indicted and unindicted cases, the 399th overall caseload is within 40 cases of the next closest court’s current caseload,” Amici told KSAT on Sept. 28, five days after KSAT first contacted Judge Castro about his court’s backlog.
Amici did not respond to a request from KSAT for updated bar graph data showing the caseloads in all Bexar County felony courts.
Therese Huntzinger, one of Soechting’s criminal defense attorneys, said Judge Castro is “rightfully so” giving preference to cases in which the defendant is not free on bond.
She declined to speak about Soechting’s past driving issues.
Amici said via email an agreed motion for continuance signed by both the state and defense was denied by the court Tuesday.