South Dakota Attorney General Charged in Fatal Car Crash

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Tom Lawrence
·11 min read
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Bloomberg
Bloomberg

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota—South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg will be criminally prosecuted for killing a man with his car last fall.

But the top law-enforcement official in the state ducked more serious felony charges in connection with the fatal crash.

On Thursday, a Hyde County prosecutor broke more than five months of silence after the Sept. 12 death of Joe Boever, a Highmore man who was walking along U.S. Highway 14 when Ravnsborg struck him.

Ravnsborg is charged with using a mobile electronic device while driving, failing to drive in a traffic lane and moving from a lane unsafely, and careless driving—all misdemeanors.

Deputy State’s Attorney Emily Sovell spoke at a press conference in Pierre, the state capital, located 48 miles west of Highmore, the Hyde County seat. This was the first time she had publicly discussed the case, after previously refusing to speak with reporters.

Sovell said the misdemeanor counts were all state law allows. “This was an extraordinarily thorough investigation,” she said Thursday.

All three counts carry a maximum penalty of 30 days in county jail, a $500 fine, or both.

For his part, Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, who assisted with the probe, said it was a “tragic accident” but that the charges filed were all that could be done legally. He added that the family needs to seek further relief in civil, rather than criminal, court.

“I am disappointed but I’m not surprised,” Boever’s cousin Nick Nemec told The Daily Beast after the charges were announced. “I knew this was going to happen because I have researched state law.”

The South Dakota Attorney General Killed a Man. Everything Else Is a Mystery.

The bizarre circumstances of the crash have sparked debate across South Dakota. And the lengthy, eerily quiet investigation invited national curiosity, raising hard questions about accountability in a tight-knit, GOP-dominated state.

The prosecutors said they spoke with Boever’s family—he was married and his mother and siblings survive him—before the press conference. They were not pleased with the decision to only file misdemeanor charges, Moore said.

Boever’s widow Jenny, who was estranged from him at the time of his death and had moved out of their home, plans to file a civil lawsuit against Ravnsborg, one of her lawyers, Gregory Eiesland of Rapid City, told the Rapid City Journal. He said the lawsuit will be filed in Hyde County.

Scott Heidepriem, a former legislator and the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor, also is representing Jenny Boever and Joe Boever’s estate.

“The family deserves answers to what happened that night,” Heidepriem told The Daily Beast. “The attorney general should be held accountable for his actions, just like everyone else.”

Some lawmakers said they wondered if South Dakota needed to add laws to protect pedestrians, the attorney added.

Nemec said he would support legislation to tighten traffic laws and add penalties for such incidents during the 2022 session.

“In short, if no one is looking and you aren’t drunk, you can run over a pedestrian in this state and escape with only minor charges,” Nemec said.

Boever’s cousin, a former Democratic legislator who farms near Highmore, said their family was devastated. A few weeks before Boever was killed, his father died following a long illness, forcing the family to gather for a pair of funerals in a short period, Nemec told The Daily Beast.

To them, Boever’s death was senseless and difficult to accept.

“The siblings want justice,” Nemec previously told The Daily Beast. “They lost a brother. Joe was the middle child in a seven-kid family and as such, when growing up, had closer relationships with all his siblings than the kids on either end would have had with the kids on the opposite end.”

“The cousins are all mad as hell,” he added. “They lost a cousin that they had played with growing up.”

Ravnsborg was returning to Pierre on Sept. 12 from a Republican Party event at a bar and restaurant in Redfield, the Spink County seat located 72 miles away, when he hit and killed Boever, 55, who lived in Highmore and worked at a grocery store. Boever was a quiet man who had been through some difficult times before returning to the area where he grew up, according to Nemec, who has served as a family spokesman.

“He bought a house, got married. In short, he was putting down roots. He liked to garden and he was good at it,” Nemec said.

Boever had run his pickup off Highway 14 earlier that day, striking a large round hay bale and disabling the vehicle. He called his cousin and close friend Victor Nemec, Nick Nemec’s brother, and asked for help.

Victor Nemec picked up Boever and, after they determined they would need a log chain to pull the pickup’s fender from the front passenger-side tire, took him to Boever’s home in Highmore. They made plans to return to the vehicle Sunday morning and try to get it back on the road.

Instead, for some reason, Boever, who was wearing dark clothing and carrying a light, walked to his pickup that night. He was returning to Highmore on the north side of the road, close to the westbound lane, when a witness spotted him shortly before the crash.

Ravnsborg was driving his own car, a red 2011 Ford Taurus, on the north shoulder of the road around 10:30 p.m. when he struck Boever, and pulled his heavily damaged vehicle over to the side. The attorney general called 911 to report the crash and said he was unsure what he had struck.

He also told a different story about where his car was at the time of the crash.

“This ... well ... Ally, I’m the attorney general. And I am ... I don’t know ... I hit something.”

Dispatcher: “You hit something?”

Caller: “By Highmore. Highmore. And it was in the middle of the road.”

Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lives on a nearby acreage, responded to the call. It’s unknown if Boever was already dead, although Nemec believes he was.

Ravnsborg said he used the flashlight app on his cell phone to look for what he had struck; the dispatcher suggested it might have been a deer. Such collisions are not uncommon in the prairie state.

While the attorney general’s car was less than 100 feet from the body, and lights from four businesses glowed all night, neither Ravnsborg nor Volek spotted the body. Volek, who also has refused to speak to the media, did not administer a test for alcohol use on the attorney general, whom he had met previously.

Instead, the sheriff provided Ravnsborg with his own private vehicle and the attorney general left the scene and drove on to Pierre. A tow truck was called to remove the damaged car; once again, Boever’s body was undiscovered, and on Thursday, Sovell said both Ravsnborg and Sheriff Volek walked past the body but simply did not see it.

The morning after the crash, Ravnsborg returned to Highmore, driving in tandem with Tim Bormann, his chief of staff, to return Sheriff Volek’s car. The attorney general drove by the crash scene and, amazingly enough, he was the one to discover the body. He then drove to Volek’s home to notify the sheriff.

The crash scene was investigated by the South Dakota Highway Patrol, which is under the control of the Department of Public Safety, not the attorney general. The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation was brought in to assist, since the equivalent agency in South Dakota does report to Ravnsborg.

A private crash reconstruction team from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, also joined the investigation, and Ravnsborg’s cell phone was sent to New Jersey to be inspected to see if he was using it at the time of the crash. On Thursday, Sovell said Ravnsborg was on his cell phone east of Highmore but had been off it for more than a minute before the crash.

Ravnsborg provided a blood-alcohol sample 15 hours after the fatality. He said he had not consumed any alcohol on Sept. 12.

South Dakota Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price said the investigation indicated Ravnsborg was distracted and that is why he did not see Boever when he struck him. Price also said the investigation determined Ravnsborg, who told the dispatcher the object he struck was in the “middle of the road,” was actually driving on the shoulder of the two-lane highway when he struck Boever.

Nemec, who has inspected the crash scene several times, believes his cousin was dragged underneath the attorney general’s car, which was badly damaged on the front passenger side, with the windshield shattered.

He said there’s a great deal that still doesn’t make sense to him.

“In the months immediately after the crash, I had many sleepless nights thinking about the events of Sept. 12. I would get up at night and drive US-14 trying to imagine that night, taking special note of the light and visibility conditions,” Nemec said. “I suppose I coped with it by doing my own investigation. While the blood was still on the highway, I measured every aspect of the crash I could think of—blood, tire marks. I was trying to wrap my mind around what happened.

“Sadly, what happened could have been avoided. Had Ravnsborg not swerved onto the shoulder, they would have passed without a thought,” he said. “Had Joe walked slower or faster, he wouldn’t have been in that spot when Ravnsborg swerved onto the shoulder.

“On this Ash Wednesday it is a reminder to me that life is fleeting,” he added earlier this week.

Ravnsborg has insisted he broke no laws, and did not contest the charges in a statement on Thursday.

“This has been a difficult and trying time for everyone involved and I do want to take a moment to thank all the people that continued to reach out to me through emails, calls, letters, and most importantly, prayers,” Ravnsborg said. “Your support and encouragement is appreciated more than you will ever know.”

“I appreciate more than ever, that the presumption of innocence placed within our legal system continues to work. I have always practiced this in my professional life, and I understand it even better now as I see that we live in a society where every person enjoys the protection of the law.”

He also expressed his sympathies for Boever’s family.

“I have and will continue to pray for Joe Boever and his family,” the attorney general said. “I cannot imagine their pain and loss and I do send my deepest condolences to them.”

Sovell took her time despite the increased demand for charges or an explanation of what happened that night on a quiet road in central South Dakota. She and Ravnsborg were law school classmates, both graduating from the University of South Dakota School of Law in 2001.

Sovell, who is the state’s attorney in nearby Sully County, is also the deputy state’s attorney in Hyde County. She is assisting her father, Hyde County State’s Attorney Merlin Voorhees, who effectively recused himself from the investigation. No reason was provided for that decision.

Sovell has been advised by Moore, who in January suggested the prosecutor could consider several options in this case.

“When dealing with an automobile accident that results in a death of another person, the law provides four different actions of an operator of the motor vehicle,” he said. “Negligent, careless, reckless, and intentional. Vehicle homicide and vehicle battery require the operator to be under the influence and also operating the vehicle in a negligent manner.

“In order for the operator to be criminally responsible for the death (if they are not under the influence) their actions must be reckless or intentional,” Moore said. “The South Dakota Legislature… rejected a negligent homicide law, thus leaving reckless or intentional actions as the only means of an operator to have criminal liability.”

Ravnsborg has a checkered driving record, with six speeding tickets and two other driving violations in South Dakota between 2014-18 and two speeding tickets in Iowa.

His spokesman on Thursday said he would respond to a text seeking comment, but did not. The spokesperson did tell the Rapid City Journal the attorney general has no plans to resign.

If he chooses to seek a second term as attorney general, Ravnsborg would be on the ballot in 2022—along with GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, who has announced her plans to seek re-election. She is also viewed as a potential Republican candidate for president in 2024.

“My heart goes out to Joseph Boever’s family,” Noem said in a tweet after the press conference. “I am not going to comment on the specifics of Ms. Sovell’s decision. I am directing the Department of Public Safety to share additional details of the investigation with the public within the next week.”

Those reports may reveal exactly where Boever was standing when he was hit by the car. Any use of alcohol and drugs that day—family members said he was completely sober a few hours before the crash and there was no alcohol in his home—also may be revealed.

Boever’s ashes were interred next to his father’s ashes in St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Dell Rapids, a small town in southeast South Dakota about 200 miles from Highmore.

“He had a bad day, the worst day of his life, and paid for it with his life,” Nemec said. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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