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Mike Nowatzki, Published January 07 2009

Wide-load death brings serious charges

A Walcott, N.D., man is charged with negligent homicide for the death of a 72-year-old woman who was killed July 25 when her SUV struck the tires of a combine being hauled across a bridge near Blanchard.

Ryan Berggren, 27, is scheduled to appear today in Traill County District Court in Hillsboro.

Berggren is accused of hauling the combine on a trailer without safety lights.

“We intend to aggressively defend this,” said his attorney, Bruce Quick of Fargo.

“These charges are generally brought based on extreme facts – alcohol consumption, drug consumption, that sort of thing. They’re not usually brought on accidents,” Quick said. “So, it’s our view there’s no criminal negligence here at all.”

The North Dakota Highway Patrol said Berggren was driving a semi hauling a combine equipped with dual front tires about 10 p.m. when the truck stalled on the Elm River bridge south of Blanchard on State Highway 18.

Berggren eventually got the semi running and was driving southbound on the bridge when two northbound vehicles struck the combine’s tires, the patrol said.

The first vehicle, a 2002 Lincoln passenger car, received extensive damage. The driver, Joseph S. Anderson, 30, of Fargo, wasn’t injured.

Barbara Mueller of Cummings, N.D., was driving the second vehicle, a 2003 Ford Explorer. She died at the scene.

Berggren also is charged with two counts of reckless endangerment for the crash involving Anderson and his passenger, Sarah Winkler of Fargo, who wasn’t injured.

All three charges are Class C felonies, each punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

State’s Attorney Stuart Larson said he would urge that the charges be tried together, “because the facts are within seconds of each other.”

According to state Trooper Kyle Stern’s report, Berggren told the trooper he was hauling the combine from Northwood to Kindred for his employer.

He was about halfway across the bridge when the engine stalled, and he contacted his boss about the problem. He waited for about half an hour and decided he needed to try to get off the bridge before it got completely dark. Several other vehicles had driven by while he was sitting waiting.

The report says Berggren told the trooper he was able to get the semi started and began to “creep” across the bridge. When he saw two vehicles approaching from the south, he stopped on the bridge to allow the first vehicle to pass, but the vehicle struck the combine tire. He told Stern he then “gunned” the semi to try to get off the bridge before the second vehicle passed, but the engine seemed to bog down, the report says.

The 130-foot-long, concrete slab bridge is 30 feet wide from curb to curb, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

The combine measured 17 feet across at its widest point, and neither the trailer nor the combine had additional safety lighting, Stern’s report says.

Mueller was on her way home from Valley City, N.D., when the crash occurred, the report says. A native of Wimbledon, N.D., she was still engaged in farming and had been named Red River Valley Farm Woman of the Year, according to her obituary.

Ron Mueller of Casselton, N.D., one of her eight children, said family members won’t comment on the case until it’s resolved.

Anderson also declined to comment Tuesday afternoon, saying he wasn’t aware that charges had been filed.

In a statement to law enforcement after the crash, he wrote: “I had no warning – I saw no flashing lights.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528