HIGHMORE — “That is blood.”
Nick Nemec points out a dried blotch on the surface of U.S. Highway 14 on the west edge of Highmore. There are several more, along with skid marks and green amd white markings where a traffic reconstruction study was held.
It’s the spot where his cousin Joe Boever died.
Boever, 55, died when he was struck by a red 2011 Ford Taurus driven by South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12.
An investigation involving South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wyoming organizations is currently underway. Gov. Kristi Noem said she would release the report upon its completion as well as other evidence.
Nick Nemec, 62, and his brother Victor Nemec, 58, have haunted the crash scene since, and are speaking with reporters as often as they can. They want to ensure no one forgets what happened on this stretch of the two-laned road.
“To hold the state’s feet to the fire,” Nick said.
The fatal crash and the aftermath have them wondering if the whole story has been told. Ravnsborg, who was westbound, headed home to Pierre after a Republican dinner in Redfield, said he thought he struck a deer about 10:30 p.m. Saturday. It damaged the front passenger side of the Taurus, including tremendous damage to the windshield.
The airbags inflated and he was uninjured. Ravnsborg, 44, called 911 and Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lives a short distance away, responded.
Neither man apparently spotted Boever in dark clothing, whose body was in 8-inch-tall grass right next to the shoulder of the road, about 50 feet from where the car came to a halt.
The attorney general said he used the flashlight app on his cell phone to look for what he thought was a dead or injured deer but did not find it. The sheriff also made a cursory inspection before focusing on returning Ravnsborg to Pierre.
For the Nemecs, that sticks in their craw.
How could a veteran law enforcement officer — Volek has been the county sheriff for many years — not conduct a better search? Why wasn’t he equipped with a better flashlight, or use the headlights of his vehicle or a spotlight to scan the roadway and ditch, Nick Nemeck asked.
Volek was unavailable for an interview Thursday. The Hyde County Courthouse is locked, and an employee who came to a door said the sheriff is refusing all media requests.
“He’s got things to do today,” the unidentified woman said.
On Saturday night, Volek provided Ravnsborg with his personal car following the crash, and the attorney general drove it to Pierre. Volek waited for a tow truck from Pierre to arrive and move the disabled vehicle away.
All that time, Joe Boever’s body was next to the highway.
Ravnsborg and Sheriff Volek were together for about a half hour before Ravnsborg got back on the highway and headed to Pierre, a spokesman for the attorney general said. He returned to Highmore on Sunday morning to return the sheriff’s car, driving in tandem with his chief of staff, Timothy Bormann.
They drove by the debris field where the accident took place, and that is when they spotted the body. Ravnsborg drove to the sheriff’s nearby home to alert him and the investigation began.
“I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway,” Ravnsborg said in a statement released late Monday. He said “it was apparent that he was dead.”
Ravnsborg said he released the statement “to dispel some of the rumor and innuendo that are being spread in the wake of this tragedy” and social media has been aflame with comments and theories.
“I have not made a statement before now because the matter is being investigated, and I want to respect that process and let it happen without any interference or appearance of impropriety on my part,” he said Monday.
The accident scene
Nick Nemec said his sister-in-law drove by the accident scene shortly after the crash and spotted a red car on the side of the road. In the morning, the car was gone.
“When did the car leave the scene of the accident?” Nick asked. “And who authorized it to leave the scene of the accident?”
Victor drove to Boever’s house around 11 a.m. Sunday to pick him up and repair and move a damaged pickup that Boever had left in a ditch west of town hours before the fatal crash. When he got there, all the lights were on and the front door was unlocked — but there was no sign of his cousin.
He drove by the accident scene and said the area was “covered” by investigators. A law enforcement officer was stationed a mile up by Boever’s pickup, which was later removed and searched by authorities.
“I got a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Victor said.
He reported Boever missing to Sheriff Volek and spoke with him again, but was not told the man he was looking for was laying dead on the side of the road. Boever’s body remained there until about 6 p.m. Sunday, apparently because South Dakota authorities called on North Dakota law enforcement agencies to take charge of the investigation.
The South Dakota attorney general oversees the Division of Criminal Investigation, which usually works in concert with the South Dakota Highway Patrol in such cases.
Gov. Kristi Noem, in a pair of press conferences this week along with Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price, said the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation is assisting in the investigation, as is John Daly, a crash investigator from Jackson Hole, Wyo.
The Nemecs are anguished that Boever’s body was left in the spot where he died.
“They could have told me he was there and allowed me to identify him,” Victor said.
“I don’t know why that body had to lay there that long,” Nick said. “I think that’s incredibly disrespectful.”
The crash site has been closed, either partially, with one lane blocked, or completely, three times since the discovery of the body. Traffic investigations have been held on Sunday, Tuesday and again on Thursday night.
Nick Nemec drove to the scene on Thursday and asked some South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers what was happening. He said they were testing the road surface and checking on speed and stopping capabilities.
While Ravnsborg’s car was removed shortly after the crash, it apparently returned to the crash scene on Tuesday for tests. Nick Nemec spotted it at a South Dakota Department of Transportation lot adjacent to the crash scene and asked for a closer look as it was taken into a building
That request was denied.
Jim Stephenson, the DOT’s lead worker in Highmore, said on Thursday the car, which belongs to Ravnsborg, was no longer there.
The Nemec brothers admit they are haunted by Boever’s death.
“The moment of impact had to be terrifying,” Victor said.
Nick speculates that Boever might have been thrown under the car and dragged for some time.
“If the impact didn’t kill him, getting dragged along the highway and into the ditch did,” he said. “I don’t think he laid here dying. When he got here, he was dead.”
They saw for themselves how much damage the crash did. They were called to identify the body Sunday night; it was brought to a Highmore funeral home in a body bag in the back of a Suburban driven by a funeral home staffer.
The bag was only partially zipped down, but the damage to Boever’s head was clear evidence of the violence in the final seconds of his life. It’s an image they vividly recall.
“Several times a day, I get this vision of him being smacked into by that car and dragged, and how horrifying that would be,” Victor said.
A few days after the fatal crash, he came across a pouch of Drum tobacco that Boever had used to roll his own cigarettes. It was a stark reminder of his loss.
“I kinda broke down for a minute or so there,” Victor said.
Renewing a relationship
The Nemecs are processing their grief. Their mother and Boever’s were sisters, but while the Nemecs grew up around Highmore, Boever was a Brookings native.
He was the fourth of seven children — his siblings Larry, Ann, Katie, Jane, Will and Tony have allowed the Nemecs to serve as family spokesmen.
Boever’s father John died on July 28 at the age of 90. His mother Dorothy resides in Dell Rapids, which is where the funeral will be held on Thursday.
Joe was a 1982 Brookings High School graduate who attended the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. He was at USD at the same time as Victor Nemec. They spent a lot of time together then, Victor recalled as he kneeled in the grass at the location where his cousin died. The grass was sticky from his blood.
They lost touch for two decades as Boever moved to California and Victor Nemec started to farm near Holabird, just as his older brother Nick does.
Then, about four years ago, Boever called Victor, and they renewed their relationship. They enjoyed talking about history, philosophy and other topics and became close again.
“I think he just needed a friend,” Victor said.
Boever worked part-time at Victor’s farm and also held other jobs, including at a senior care center in Miller, a nearby community. He met a woman in Highmore, Jennifer Mohr, and they married in 2017.
The couple lived in a home Boever had purchased from Victor Nemec, but they had recently had some difficult times, Victor said. Jenny, as he referred to her, had moved into an apartment, but returned to the house in the wake of her husband’s death.
The Pioneer was unable to contact her while in Highmore or by phone or text later.
Shalon Ahrenholz lived in the home just east of Boever. She said he was a quiet, decent man and a “very good neighbor” whom she will miss.
“He kept to himself,” Ahrenholz said. “He helped out whenever we had something going on. He kept his lawn up. Just an all-around good neighbor.”
Joe Boever had been diagnosed as bipolar, and had battled depression for many years, his cousins said. When he was dealing with it, he would grow “sullen” and not want to communicate, Victor said, but more typically he was upbeat and friendly.
He was in a foul mood when Victor picked him up Saturday night after Boever had run his white F-150 pickup into the ditch about a mile and a half west of Highmore. He left the road while reaching for a pouch of tobacco, he told Victor, and the pickup drove into the west ditch, striking a large round bale.
That left the front passenger side damaged, with the fender bent into the tire. The cousins agreed to return Sunday morning to retrieve it, and Victor dropped Boever off at his home in Highmore.
“He was acting tired and a little sluggish,” Victor said. “But I didn’t smell any alcohol on him or coming out of the truck.”
There also was no sign of alcohol in his house, said Victor, who admitting to “snooping” around.
For some reason, Boever decided to return to the pickup later that night. It was about a 2-mile walk from his home, and he was halfway there when he was struck and killed.
The Nemec brothers have no idea why Boever was walking to the pickup in the dark. Was there something he wanted to retrieve? Did he just feel like taking a walk, as he did at times?
They are without an answer.
Both reject the idea that Boever was walking on the highway as a form of suicide. Victor said even at his lowest moments, he never considered that.
He had recently started a new prescription and said it made him feel a lot better, Victor said.
“He thought they (the medications) were helping him, but I don’t know,” he said.
Ravnsborg saddened but working
Bormann, Ravnsborg’s chief of staff, is serving as the attorney general’s office’s spokesman.
“On the record, the Attorney General has been in and out of the office,” Bormann said an email to the Pioneer Thursday. “He continues to perform his duties and is always available to the office.”
Bormann said he was directing any future inquiries regarding Ravnsborg to Mike Deaver, a Salt Lake City public affairs consultant and strategist.
Deaver, a distant relative of Michael Deaver, a top aide and communications specialist for President Ronald Reagan, said he has met Ravnsborg over the years and they know each other casually.
He said this was “a tragic situation on both fronts” and that Ravnsborg is hurt “emotionally and spiritually.” But he said the attorney general was not physically injured and has not sought medical attention.
“He’s definitely sorry. He’s truly sorry,” Deaver said. “It’s a tragic accident.”
Deaver said he is acting as the spokesman to ensure state funds are not spent on representing the attorney general in what is a personal matter.
Ravnsborg has been trying to reach Boever’s family to convey his sympathies, he said. Ravnsborg is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw combat and has seen people die. Still, this has been a difficult period for him, he said.
But Deaver said the attorney general has no plans to take time off or to resign. However, if he faces criminal charges for the crash, he will reconsider, Deaver said.
The Nemec brothers wonder how fast Ravnsborg was driving when the crash occurred. The speed limit on Highway 14 drops to 45 mph within the city limits of Highmore but returns to 65 when leaving the small town.
That is almost exactly where the crash occurred.
Ravnsborg’s driving history provides reasons for raising the issue. He has six tickets for speeding in South Dakota from 2014-18, with citations issued in Beadle, Pennington, Clay, Faulk, Douglas and Yankton counties, as well as two other citations, one for not wearing a seat belt.
Victor Nemec said he thinks the AG should step aside until the investigation is completed, in part to allow him to process the impact of what happened.
“To me, I don’t see how he could be fulfilling his duties as need be with this thing hanging over his head,” he said. “How could he concentrate on his duties right now?”
Ravnsborg and Sheriff Volek had met a few times but had “no personal relationship,” Deaver said. He said he believes the sheriff loaned his car to Ravnsborg as a sign of respect for a fellow law enforcement officer.
“You know, I think that is it,” he said.
Victor Nemec said a few years ago, he struck a deer near the area where Boever was killed. His vehicle was totaled but the airbags went off and he was uninjured.
He called 911 and asked to have the sheriff respond with as little fuss as possible. The Nemec brothers said they have always gotten along well with the sheriff, but he has declined to speak with them this week.
Ravnsborg has denied drinking any alcohol before, during or after attending the Spink County Lincoln’s Day Dinner at Rooster’s Bar & Grill in Redfield. He was there for several hours before heading back to Pierre.
The manager of Rooster’s, who gave her name only as Ashley, said she would not comment if she saw Ravnsborg consume alcohol at the event.
“That I will not answer,” she said. “This is an open investigation.”
She said the bar/restaurant has a liquor license but would not say if anyone at the GOP event had consumed alcohol. The Spink County Lincoln Day Dinner has been held at Rooster’s before, she said.
A woman who only identified herself by her first name, Rachel, said her father Scott Tracy owns the bar. She said she was working Saturday, Sept. 12, but did not speak with Ravnsborg.
Deaver said Ravnsborg had not been drinking, and was “not distracted or drowsy” when the fatal accident occurred.
Nick Nemec, a former Democratic legislator who ran for the Public Utilities Commission in 2012, said he believes Ravnsborg when he said he was not drinking. It’s not something politicians routinely do at public gatherings.
But he does think there is a reason the attorney general struck and killed his cousin — either because he was on the phone or was tired or speeding. Maybe it was a combination of factors why he didn’t see Boever along the road.
Now, a week after the fatal crash, everyone involved said they want the process to continue. Deaver said he considers it an accident and doesn’t see any need for criminal charges.
The Nemecs said they want one thing to emerge from this.
“The truth,” Nick said.
“The truth,” Victor said. “We want the truth.”
Publisher Letti Lister and Editor Mark Watson contributed to this report.
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