SPEARFISH — Some fatal crash investigations take longer than others.
That’s the view of two South Dakota state’s attorneys involved in the investigation of South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s Sept. 12 fatal crash in Hyde County.
Ravnsborg has admitted he was driving his personal car on Highway 14 just west of Highmore on Sept. 12 when he struck and killed Joe Boever, who was walking on the shoulder of the road around 10:30 p.m.
Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, one of three South Dakota county attorneys who have advised Emily Sovell, the Sully County state’s attorney and the Hyde County deputy state’s attorney, said the case is still being investigated, so no decision on if charges will be filed has been made yet.
Sovell did not reply to calls to both county attorneys’ offices nor did she respond to emails.
She is in charge of the case instead of her father, Hyde County State’s Attorney Merlin Voorhees, who is not involved in charging discussions. Sovell has sought the counsel of Moore and Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo as well as the Minnehaha County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“No decisions have been made as there is additional information that we are waiting to receive,” Moore said. “When we receive this information is beyond our control.”
He did not disclose what kind of information is still being pursued.
Vargo said he spoke with Sovell last week, and said he is serving as an “adviser or an assistant” to Covell on this matter.
“This is not my call,” he said.
Vargo is aware of the public interest in the case and the call for a decision. But Vargo, who is in his ninth year as Pennington County state’s attorney and has been a prosecutor for 32 years, said the process must be completed as Sovell sees fit.
“We, like any case, we want to do it with all due dispatch, on the other hand we also need to make sure we have all the information we need to make the correct decision,” Vargo said. “Ultimately that final decision has to be made by the person who will be responsible for prosecuting the case, and not every case is on the same timeline.”
Moore said such a lengthy investigation is not uncommon. He has been a prosecutor since 1994 and the county attorney since 1997.
“I am participating in this case and have had numerous meeting and conversations with investigators and Emily Sovell,” Moore said. “It is not unusual at all that an investigation of this nature takes four months. I have personally been involved in cases of this nature that have taken eight months to a year.”
Noem: ‘Great disservice’ to victim’s family
Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican, has not missed a day of work since the fatal crash occurred.
Gov. Kristi Noem said it’s time to make a decision on the fatal crash.
“We continue to call it a great disservice to the victim’s family,” Noem said at a Thursday press conference. “I am disappointed that we haven’t seen some action taken by the states’ attorney involved and hope certainly that they soon will. We make inquiries on a regular basis and have gotten no answers.”
Noem cannot remove or suspend Ravnsborg, according to the governor’s communications director, Ian Fury.
“Since the attorney general is a separately elected constitutional official, she has no such authority,” Fury said.
On Nov. 2, Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price said Ravnsborg was distracted and driving on the shoulder of the road before hitting Boever, who was walking on the north shoulder of the road. He had earlier ran his pickup into a ditch and struck a large round bale about a mile north of the crash site.
Ravnsborg called 911 after the crash and, after identifying himself as the attorney general, told a dispatcher he had struck something in “the middle of the road.”
“This ... well ... Ally, I’m the attorney general. And I am ... I don’t know ... I hit something.”
The dispatcher then asked for clarification. “You hit something?” she said.
“By Highmore. Highmore,” Ravnsborg said. “And it was in the middle of the road.”
A review of the scene shows tire marks leading off the north lane of the highway and onto the right shoulder.
Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lives nearby, responded to the crash. He and Ravnsborg briefly looked for the object that the attorney general had hit — Ravnsborg said he used the flashlight app on his cell phone — before turning their attention to getting Ravnsborg back to Pierre.
All the while, Boever, 55, lay dead or dying on the edge of the road. He had been struck by the front passenger side of Ravnsborg’s red 2011 Ford Taurus. He was slammed against the windshield before falling to the pavement.
Volek loaned his personal car to Ravnsborg, who drove to Pierre. In the morning, he drove back to Highmore, in tandem with Tim Bormann, his chief of staff and a former Faulk County state’s attorney, to return the sheriff’s car. Ravnsborg said he spotted Boever’s body on the side of the road and drove to the sheriff’s home to inform him.
“I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway,” Ravnsborg said in a statement released Sept. 14. He said “it was apparent that he was dead.”
Volek, a longtime sheriff who has refused to speak with the media since the fatal crash, did not reply to phone messages left at his office or home.
Ravnsborg was not available to take a call at his state office, Bormann said Friday morning. He said Mike Deaver, who is serving as Ravnsborg’s spokesman, was speaking to reporters.
Deaver, is a veteran public relations consultant and strategist from Salt Lake City.
Deaver said Ravnsborg also wants the investigation to end, and would prefer more transparency. He wishes Sovell would break her silence and talk with the media, Deaver said.
“I would say, the attorney general shares the governor’s sentiment and would like to see this come to a conclusion, or at least remarks from the investigators on the time forecast on when this might be wrapped up,” he said.
Ravsnborg stands on his earlier statements that he did nothing criminally wrong. The fact that he immediately called 911 shows that, Deaver said.
He said Ravsnborg has been deeply impacted by this.
“Absolutely, I talk to him on a very regular basis,” Deaver said. “This is tough on him personally and he certainly feels for the family and for the public and wants it to be concluded.”
He said Ravsnborg has “no intention of resigning at this point because there’s no conclusion to the case and no charges filed.”
Would he step aside if charges are filed?
“I think that’s kind of a game-time decision, on whatever may be charged,” Deaver said. “At this point, there are no charges so he doesn’t have any intention to resign or take a leave of absence.”
Ravsnborg was elected in 2018 and would need to run for a second term in 2022. He also ran in the Republican Senate primary in 2014. Does this fatal crash end his political career?
"To be honest, we have not even discussed that,” Deaver said. “Right now, it’s just been the status of the case and the work that’s in front of him on behalf of the people of South Dakota.”
Ravnsborg denied having anything to drink before the crash, which occurred as he returned to Pierre following the Spink County Lincoln’s Day Dinner at Rooster’s Bar & Grill in Redfield. The event is usually held in February but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ravnsborg gave a blood draw, which showed no sign of alcohol, at around 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, about 15 hours after the crash. Price has said alcohol dissipates at .015% per hour
The crash was investigated by the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and a private accident scene reconstruction expert from Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Ravnsborg’s car was returned to the crash scene as experts spent much of the next week studying the roadway and trying to ascertain exactly what happened.
Nick Nemec, an area farmer, former Democratic legislator and Boever’s cousin, has visited the crash site many times. Nemec has served as a family spokesman.
“I don’t know what info they are waiting for,” he said. “I have resisted talking to Emily Sovell out of a concern that I don’t want to be accused of interference with an investigation.”
Nemec has devoted a lot of time to investigating the crash. He said a local woman saw someone matching Boever’s description who was headed into town just before the fatal crash.
“I am convinced he was walking east toward Highmore,” he said. “At first we just assumed he was walking out to his truck but the witness who came forward to me was very specific in her details and said he was walking toward town.”
County attorneys: Prosecutor has options
Vargo said two possible options for charges are vehicular homicide or second-degree manslaughter.
“Those would be among the options,” he said, while declining to reveal what he has discussed with Sovell. Vargo also declined to reveal when a decision on charges might be announced.
Moore said the prosecutor has four 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, I believe in 2019, rejected a negligent homicide law, thus leaving reckless or intentional actions as the only means of an operator to have criminal liability.”
Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar said he has not been involved in the case. Crystal Johnson, whom Haggar defeated in a Republican primary in June, held the position before he took office on Jan. 4.
Johnson did not return a voicemail on Friday morning.
“The Minnehaha County State’s Attorney’s Office was previously consulted on the matter,” Haggar said Friday. “Since my term started, my office has not been involved in the matter and our focus is on Minnehaha County cases.”
Vargo declined to comment on Noem’s statement, saying he had not heard or read it, and would not respond even if he had.
“The governor has her role and I have mine, and mine is not to comment on her,” he said.
Moore also said he was not aware of Noem’s comments.
“I am not familiar with any statements that Gov. Noem has made,” he said.
Nemec said it seems like Boever is being largely forgotten in coverage of this tragedy.
“I’m afraid so. He was a mild-mannered guy and often overlooked in life,” he said. “Although I was pleased to have many people come forward to me who said he was kind to them at his grocery store job, and always remembered their name and details.”
Nemec said the fatal crash could have so easily been avoided.
“Yeah, a minute either way would have made the difference,” he said. “Had he stopped to take a leak by a ditch bale, the AG would have missed him. He might have driven in the ditch 100 yards before Joe got there — and Joe would have helped him get out of the ditch.”
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This story has been updated to include quotes from Mike Deaver.