The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

February 1, 2012

State Patrol: New Ulm squad car's lights, siren off during fatal crash

NEW ULM — A New Ulm police officer was traveling between 70 and 72 mph — his squad car’s lights and siren turned off, the accelerator to the floor and his eyes on the radar device — less than one second before the Ford Crown Victoria slammed into a left-turning Mercury Sable last July, killing both people in the Sable.

Those were the conclusions of a lengthy investigative report by the Minnesota State Patrol, released after a secret grand jury proceeding resulted in no charges against Officer Mathew Mark Rasmussen for his actions in the July 8 crash.

The collision killed driver Myra Ann Meyer, 82, of New Ulm and her 60-year-old son Brian Wichmann of Mankato. Rasmussen suffered injuries to an arm.

That Friday afternoon in July was warm with no precipitation, visibility of 10 miles and the sun directly overhead, according to the Patrol report.

The pavement on New Ulm’s Garden Street, which has a 30 mph speed limit, was dry and sight lines in both directions were unobstructed.

Rasmussen was on traffic patrol when he said his radar unit clocked a blue SUV doing 44 mph on Garden Street. After allowing a vehicle to pass, he turned southeast on Garden Street in pursuit of the speeder.

Rasmussen didn’t activate his siren but turned on his emergency lights, and the cars between him and the suspected speeder cleared out of the way, according to the report. The 31-year-old officer said he left the emergency lights on, that they went off only when power was cut off by the collision.

But numerous witnesses on and near Garden Street told a different story. After cars pulled to the side of the road, the lights were turned off.

Elizabeth Sletta was leaving a funeral service with her 15-year-old son, using the sight of the squad car as an opportunity to do some driver-education teaching. They talked about the cars, including their own, pulling to the side of the road. Her son wondered why one vehicle turned left, leaving Garden Street, rather than pulling over.

“I said, ‘Well, maybe because the police car has turned off his lights. Maybe the emergency is over,’” Sletta recalled telling him.

Lori Ann Geiger, 43, of 1020 Garden Street, was shooting video of her grandkids hitting a piñata that was hanging from a tree in the front yard. The squad car’s lights weren’t activated when it passed, Geiger said.

William Strenge, 35, of New Ulm was about a block away: “I didn’t see any lights.”

Willie Schmidt of Gaylord was part of a crew blowing insulation into the Garden Terrace apartments, taking a break and walking toward the street as Meyer attempted to turn into the apartment building’s driveway.

“I didn’t see any lights,” Schmidt told investigators. “There was no sirens. I didn’t hear screeches, nothing. ... I will say I heard just a wee bit of brake, just before, but there wasn’t much.”

The brake was applied four-tenths of a second before impact, according to Sgt. Andrew Brumm of the Patrol’s Major Crash Reconstruction Team. Using data retrieved from the squad car’s computer system, Brumm determined that the 2009 Crown Victoria’s accelerator and throttle increased dramatically in the final 11 seconds before the crash.

“By approximately -9.2 seconds (before the crash) they are both at 100 percent and the engine RPM and vehicle engine speed begin climbing rapidly,” Brumm reported.

Other than a brief pause, which Brumm attributed to the squad’s automatic transmission switching gears, “the vehicle speed continues to rise into the last second of the recording. ... At -.4 seconds, the vehicle is traveling just under 70 mph,” he concluded. “The last reading shows the vehicle traveling just under 60 mph.”

A crash reconstruction by the Patrol put the squad’s speed at 72 mph just before the brief skid marks appear and 60 mph at the moment of impact.

“In my opinion, the driver perceives a threat and comes off the accelerator at approximately the -.8 second mark,” Brumm reported. “At this point the crash is unavoidable.”

Witnesses didn’t notice a left-turn signal blinking on Meyer’s car, and the Patrol found no physical evidence that the signal had been activated. Rasmussen said he saw the vehicle heading northwest on Garden Street — opposite of his direction — and saw no indication it was going to do anything other than continue heading northwest.

“... That’s the time I just kind of, I feel like I’m safe in the car and the other car is continuing northbound,” Rasmussen said during his deposition, which included two attorneys representing him.

Strenge, the witness who was in a vehicle about a block away, said there was nothing abrupt about Meyer’s turn into her apartment complex.

“It looked to me like the lady was turning into Garden Terrace apartments. ... And very slowly turning in,” Strenge said. “Not to be mean or anything, but elderly do turn slowly in my opinion.”

At that moment, though, Rasmussen was checking the radar unit to see if the speeding SUV was still above 40 mph — the point at which he considered it worth pursuing.

“I glanced up then — that car is basically in the traffic lane at that point,” Rasmussen said of Meyer’s Sable. “At that point, basically, we touch. We collide.”

Which was also the point that most of the witnesses became Good Samaritans. Shane Ludovissie, part of the insulating crew, was up on some scaffolding.

“I heard one of my employees on the ground say, ‘Wow, he’s in a hurry.’ And the second he got done saying that, there was a huge boom,” said Ludovissie, who sent another employee to see what happened. “I told him to hurry it up and run, and he got around the corner and he said, ‘It’s bad, man.’”

Willie Schmidt, the member of the crew from Gaylord, checked Meyer for a pulse and then found himself holding Wichmann’s traumatized, bleeding head while waiting for emergency crews to arrive. Co-worker Ed Daskowiak of Gibbon was with him.

“... We didn’t want to move him out of the car without anybody’s permission, you know,” Daskowiak told investigators. “(We) just tried to comfort the people and tell them everything was going to be OK,”

 Wichmann, who worked at MRCI and was active in Leisure Education for Exceptional People (LEEP), died at the scene. Meyer — who, with her father Ben Bauermeister, was the long-time owner and operator of a vintage popcorn wagon that was a fixture for decades at New Ulm community events — died at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

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