Pennsylvania (Jill Cecil Wiersma-The Tennessean) – In his 16 years as a truck driver, Mike Schiotis never worried about his safety while helping other motorists — until Tuesday night when he unwittingly intervened in an attempted murder-suicide.
“I thought, ‘Oh man, this isn’t happening,’ ” the Spring Hill resident said of the moment he saw a man with a gun coming after a woman at a wreck on Interstate 380 outside Scranton, Pa.
Schiotis stopped his 42,000-pound tractor-trailer truck. .
“She was shrieking and in fear for her life. I said a quick prayer: ‘God, if you are going to take me, I’m ready, but I’ve got to help out,” he thought before jumping out of his cab to find the man allegedly beating the woman just outside his door.
“I could hear the sound of the gun hitting her head,” he said.
Schiotis, 44, had never seen anything like this in his 2 million miles of travel. He had thought it was a case of road rage, but learned from the 41-year-old woman as they escaped in his truck that it was a domestic dispute with her ex-boyfriend.
“She said, ‘Nobody else would help me. You stopped and saved my life,’ ” he recalled, via phone from outside Baltimore on Friday.
“I didn’t realize the gravity of that,” he said. “Things have been hitting me over the last few days.”
Elvino Alberto Cagnardi, 64, of East Orange, N.J., had intended to kill the woman and himself,according to the criminal complaint taken by Pennsylvania State Police. Police did not release the name of the woman.
Cagnardi had confronted the woman at her workplace earlier that day when she told him she was pregnant with his baby. He followed her on the interstate, hitting his horn, flashing his lights and at one point shooting at her car to get her attention, police said.
As she attempted to make a U-turn in the road, he approached her vehicle and attempted to shoot her, but the gun jammed, according to the report.
Still in danger
Schiotis called 911 after he and the woman were in his big rig, but the danger wasn’t over yet.
“I was swerving to keep him from pulling up next to us and shooting at us,” he said. “My load was only about 6,000 pounds, and I was able to maneuver fairly well.”
He took to his CB radio, explaining his erratic driving to fellow truckers.
A trucker from Dupre Transport offered to help block the other lane. Meanwhile, the 911 operator put Schiotis on the phone with a trooper who let him know units were trying to catch up with them. The trooper advised Schiotis and the other trucker to slow down and stop.
“I just kept checking my mirrors until I could see them,” Schiotis said.
Troopers took Cagnardi into custody without incident. In an interview early Wednesday, he told police he “knew it was over” and he “just wanted to end it.” He said he had written a note for whoever would find them.
Cagnardi is in jail with bail set at $2 million on charges that include attempted criminal homicide and attempted criminal homicide of a child. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
The woman was taken to a hospital in Scranton and treated for head trauma, a broken hand and several cuts to her hands and face.
In retrospect, Schiotis considers his light load of restaurant equipment a blessing that night. He started his trip from Brooklyn wanting a heavier load that would have brought his total weight for the 72-foot-long truck up to 80,000 pounds.
“If I was fully loaded, I would have been easy pickings for him,” he said. “It’s so unreal. Even talking about it now, it’s like it happened to somebody else.”
Schiotis said he usually helps one or two motorists each year. He said the best thing to do most times is call 911, and that’s probably what several other motorists did that night.
“If you see a man with a gun and you yourself are not armed, what can you do?” he said. .
Schiotis wasn’t sure how he’d explain what happened to his family.
“It took me two days to tell my mama because she worries a lot,” he said. “She was glad I was OK. She would have wanted me to stop and help.”
Schiotis’ sister, Stephanie Johnson of Columbia, Tenn., said he has a bachelor’s degree in accounting but fell in love with trucking. She said they talk regularly by cellphone when he’s on the road. She was his first call after the incident.
“I was crying when he told me,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Mike, do you realize you are a hero? You saved that woman’s life and her baby, too!’ I believe the Lord was with him every step of the way.”