(UPDATED: NOW INCLUDES STATEMENT RELEASED LATE MONDAY BY RAVNSBORG)
South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, driving west of Highmore on Saturday night, hit and killed a man walking along U.S. Highway 14, state officials said on Monday.
Ravnsborg, 44, told the Hyde County Sheriff’s Office he was driving a 2011 Ford Taurus westbound on Highway 14, about a mile west of Highmore about 10:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 12, when he hit a deer, according to Tony Mangan, public information officer for the state Department of Public Safety.
Ravnsborg, in a statement issued late Monday evening, said it wasn't until he returned to the scene Sunday morning that he discovered the body Joseph Boever, 55, of Highmore, lying in the grass near the highway.
Highmore is 49 miles east-northeast of Pierre.
Ravnsborg was not injured.
“I am shocked and filled with sorrow following the events of last night,” said Ravnsborg said Sunday in a news release. “I am fully cooperating with the investigation and I fully intend to continue (to) do so moving forward. At this time I offer my deepest sympathy and condolences to the family.”
The fact this traffic death involves a top state government official — in fact, the state’s top law enforcement officer — has made this case of high interest and seems to have affected how information about it has been released to the public differently than in most traffic death cases.
Gov. Kristi Noem conducted a news conference in the Capitol in Pierre about 5:20 p.m., Sunday, and announced that Ravnsborg had been involved in a traffic crash that killed a person about 10:30 p.m., Saturday, just west of Highmore.
But few other details about the crash were released Sunday. Normally, within 24 hours, usually less, Mangan issues a standard report giving most of the who, what, when, wheres of serious traffic crashes in the state. Typically, the initial reports include:
the ages and genders of anyone involved;
the year and make of the vehicles;
a brief outline of how the crash happened;
sometimes mentioning road conditions;
which direction drivers were traveling on what roads; and
how badly anyone was injured, and whether someone was “pronounced dead at the scene,” or died later at a hospital.
Normally, names of people involved in serious traffic crashes are not released for several days until family members are notified.
In this case, the information released Sunday by Noem about 17 hours after Boever was hit, was Ravnsborg’s name and age and job title, that fact it happened “just west” of Highmore and resulted in someone dying.
“Last night at about 10:30 p.m. in Hyde County, the attorney general was involved in a traffic crash while driving on U.S. Highway 14 just west of Highmore,” Noem said, summing up about all the facts released Sunday during her news conference. “There was a fatality and law enforcement is working on identifying the deceased and notifying the family.”
Boever grew up in Brookings and lived in Mitchell and Vermillion, but moved away years ago, spending time in California, before coming to Highmore four years ago, said Victor Nemec, who told the Capital Journal that Boever was his first cousin.
“It’s pronounced Beaver, just like the animal,” Nemec said.
Nemec said his cousin did not have children and had separated recently from his wife.
“He was between jobs,” said Nemec, who had hired Boever this past summer for some farm work.
Boever called him Saturday evening asking for help, Nemec said. “He was reaching for his tobacco — he rolled his own cigarettes — and drove into the ditch and hit a big round bale.”
It bent the fender enough on the front passenger side that it was not drivable, Nemec said. So he gave Boever a ride back into Highmore about a mile to the east about 9 p.m. Saturday and they made plans to go out in the morning and bend the fender enough to drive the truck home.
But Boever must have decided to walk out later Saturday night to get his truck, Nemec said.
He was hit by Ravnsborg just west of the state highway department shop, about a quarter-mile west of the junction of Highway 14 and state Highway 47, said Nemec, who drove by the scene Sunday.
Ravnsborg called 911 at about 10:24 p.m. Saturday to report hitting the deer and waited at the scene until Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek showed up, said his chief of staff, Tim Bormann. However, Boever’s body was not found that night, not until the next morning.
That’s when Victor Nemec called in to report his cousin missing, said Nemec, who went to Boever’s house Sunday morning to find it empty.
That led him to find out his cousin had been killed along the highway, he said.
Law enforcement and emergency workers blocked off the westbound lane for hours on Sunday while investigators and others worked the scene.
Late Monday evening Ravnsborg released a long statement because of "many rumors and stories being told and reported which do not represent a full and factual account" of the incident.
Ravnsborg said he left the Spink County Lincoln Day Dinner in Redfield, about 70 miles northeast of Highmore, about 9:15 p.m., Saturday.
"I consumed no alcoholic beverages before, during or after the event," he said in his statement Monday. "While on my way back to Pierre and shortly after leaving the town of Highmore, my vehicle struck something that I believed to be a large animal (likely a deer). I didn't see what I had hit and stopped my vehicle immediately to investigate. I immediately called 911 to report the accident and the Hyde County Sheriff came to the scene."
Ravnsborg said he did not have a flashlight and used his cell phone light "to survey the ditch but couldn't see anything."
"All I could see were pieces of my vehicle laying on and around the roadway."
When Sheriff Mike Volek arrived, he "surveyed the damage at the scene and to my vehicle," Ravnsborg said. "At no time did either of us suspect I that I had been involved in an accident with a person."
His car was too damaged to drive and a tow truck was an hour away, so Volek "graciously offered to loan me his personal vehicle so I could drive back to Pierre."
Sunday morning Ravnsborg and his chief of staff, Tim Bormann, brought Volek's vehicle back to Highmore and stopped to look at the scene of the crash. it would have been about 9 a.m., according to Ravnsborg's account.
"As I walked along the shoulder of the road I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway."
Ravnsborg said he has given investigators a long interview, agreed to a search of his cell phones and "provided a blood draw," to measure any alcohol in his blood.
"I'm deeply saddened by the tragic nature of these events and my heartfelt condolences go out to the Boever family," Ravnsborg said in his statement. "As stated previously, I am providing this information to try and dispel some of the rumor and innuendo that are being spread in the wake of this tragedy."
Victor Nemec said he's skeptical of Ravnsborg's account and of the investigation.
“In my opinion, I think the deer story is (B.S). I think that it is an excuse made up at the spot,” Nemec said on Monday. “State officials are not releasing enough information.”
Nemec said he wonders if the investigation is going to be thorough.
“I think it’s a high-ranking state official involved so they are trying very hard to control the story.”
Nemec said it appeared that his cousin’s body stayed at the scene of the crash all day and it wasn’t until Sunday evening that it was brought in to the Luze Funeral Home in Highmore in a body bag. “It was out there 22 hours,” Nemec said.
Nemec was asked to identify the body, which Highway Patrol troopers warned him “was badly damaged,” Nemec told the Capital Journal.
“They took the body bag out and put it on a gurney kind of deal and unzipped it enough so I could see his face and shoulder,” Nemec said.
On Sunday, 17 hours after the crash, neither Noem nor her Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price, who formerly was superintendent of the Highway Patrol reported how many people were involved, whether Ravnsborg was injured and what happened, even that it was a pedestrian who was killed.
At the news conference, Price told a trio of questioners that such details couldn’t yet be released.
It wasn’t until Monday that it was revealed that Ravnsborg had hit a man walking along the highway.
Pedestrian deaths in traffic crashes are uncommon in South Dakota. A Capital Journal analysis of annual reports from the Department of Public Safety found that an average of 8.8 pedestrians have been killed on state highways each year the past two decades; the past decade it’s been 7.2 people killed per year on average.
For the past decade or so, pedestrians make up about 5.5% of traffic deaths, on average each year, according to figures from the annual reports by the DPS.
But they are reported more quickly on a routine basis by the DPS, especially under Mangan, who was a longtime radio and newspaper reporter.
For comparison in a recent pedestrian death that was handled differently:
At about 10:20 p.m., Friday, Aug. 21, Cornelius Kirk Jr. was hit and killed by a large SUV northbound on Interstate 29 just north of Sisseton in the northeast corner of the state.
By Saturday afternoon, Aug. 22, Mangan issued a report giving the ages and genders of the six people in the 2007 GMC Yukon and the fact that none of them were injured. He also reported that the Highway Patrol had determined that Kirk — still unnamed for several days until family were notified — ”was walking partially on the roadway and the shoulder of the roadway. The pedestrian was pronounced dead at the scene. The six occupants of the Yukon were not injured. No charges are pending against the 19-year-old female driver.”
Such information was not released the day, or even two days, after the crash in which Ravnsborg was the driver who hit and killed Boever.
But Mangan on Monday told the Capital Journal that the case is being handled properly and in line with other traffic death cases.
“Every investigation is different, depending on the circumstances,” Mangan said. “The Highway Patrol still is doing its due diligence, like it always does. Secretary Price was very clear yesterday that this case will be investigated just like any other case.”
But one big difference is that state officials asked the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, an arm of the state attorney general’s office, to oversee the investigation so there is no appearance of a conflict of interest, according to Tim Bormann, chief of staff for Ravnsborg.
The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, which normally investigates serious crimes and helps local agencies on request, is under Ravnsborg’s authority.
So it’s not uncommon in a case like this for the DCI to ask an independent, outside agency to take over “to remove any appearance of impropriety,” Bormann told the Capital Journal.
North Dakota state police are in Pierre and already working the case, but are not using space in Ravnsborg’s office, he said.
“The DCI is completely hands off,” Bormann said. “We are not involved.”
It’s happened before and is reciprocal, Bormann said. “Our DCI has gone up to assist them when they have a conflict issue.”