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Mike Nowatzki, Published July 23 2009

Walcott man sentenced in fatal crash

HILLSBORO, N.D. – Calling it a “very tragic set of circumstances,” a judge on Wednesday sentenced a Walcott man to serve three years of probation for his role in the death of a 72-year-old woman who died when her SUV struck the tire of a combine he was hauling across a bridge.

Ryan Berggren, initially charged with negligent homicide, pleaded guilty in Traill County District Court to two amended counts of reckless endangerment.

Saturday will mark a year since the nighttime accident that claimed Barbara Mueller’s life on the Elm River bridge a half-mile south of Blanchard on State Highway 18.

The combine and trailer lacked safety lights, and the tire was sticking 3½ feet into the oncoming traffic lane, State’s Attorney Stuart Larson said.

Another car hit the tires just before Mueller did, but that driver wasn’t injured.

“It appears that neither car had any idea” of the hazard, Larson said.

A dozen or so members of Mueller’s family sat behind Berggren in the courtroom as Judge Georgia Dawson sentenced him to one year in jail, suspended for three years, and three years of supervised probation.

“It appears, in this case, more could have been done to prevent this accident,” Dawson said.

Berggren entered Alford pleas, meaning he acknowledges that a jury could have convicted him but doesn’t agree that he was factually guilty, said his attorney, Bruce Quick.

Berggren left the courthouse without talking to reporters. Quick said his client “feels very bad about the accident and obviously wishes it wouldn’t have happened.

“And with 20/20 hindsight, something perhaps could have been done different,” Quick said. “But there clearly was problems with the truck. There’s no question about that.”

Mueller’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Berggren and the farmers he worked for, Raedell and Dan Braaten of Braaten Farms. That case is scheduled for a jury trial in August 2010.

Mueller’s family declined comment Wednesday.

“I think they have mixed emotions,” Larson said.

Larson said he knew Mueller for more than 25 years. Asked if he thought Berggren’s punishment was fair, he cited Berggren’s clean criminal record and said he believes the jointly recommended sentence is what would have happened if a jury had found him guilty.

“There’s nothing I can do to change what happened,” Larson said. “I think we ended up with as close to justice as we could get out of this, but nothing … this system can do will ever, ever replace a person.”

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