Gretchen Schlosser, Forum Communications Co., Published March 06 2010
Bus crash victim's family ‘outraged over what he did’
“The death of a child is a stab in the heart to each of us,” said Kim Weishair, father of 16-year-old Jessica, before a judge sentenced the driver, Loren Ernst of Moorhead, to 30 days in jail Friday.
“We remain outraged over what he did and the loss he caused,” said Weishair, who spoke on the family’s behalf by presenting a victim impact statement.
Previously, Ernst pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge of criminal vehicular operation. He’d earlier entered a plea agreement that spelled out the punishment and dismissed two felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide or operation in the case.
Jessica Weishair’s death, on April 5, 2008, came less than two weeks after her 16th birthday, when she passed her driver’s license test and started her first “real” job. Her license and paycheck both arrived after her death.
Kim Weishair, one of about 40 people at the courthouse in Buffalo, said his family is still outraged that Ernst kept driving the bus full of students while he was tired and dozing at the wheel, causing the crash.
“There is no doubt that Jessica was going to be successful at whatever she was going to do,” he said, adding that his daughter was planning on studying to be a pediatric nurse or going to medical school. She was kind and generous and becoming more and more like her mother, Stacy, every day, he said.
“We, as her parents, couldn’t have asked for a better kid,” he said.
Weishair asked Judge Dale Mossey to sentence Ernst to the maximum penalty. “We wanted you, Loren Ernst, to take responsibility for your actions,” he said.
The hearing was in Wright County District Court in Buffalo, near where the bus crashed on Interstate 94.
In addition to jail, the judge ordered Ernst to 30 days of house arrest, 30 days of community service, two years of supervised probation, and to pay a $300 fine and restitution for losses not covered by insurance.
Ernst was driving one of two charter buses carrying Pelican Rapids students and chaperones home from a four-day band trip to Chicago. At 5:48 a.m. April 5, 2008, the bus driven by Ernst, carrying 48 students and chaperones, left Interstate 94 near Albertville, hitting a ramp before skidding on its right side. Jessica Weishair was pinned beneath the bus and died. About 90 minutes before the crash, Ernst had told the other bus driver he was tiring.
A total of 36 people were hurt in the crash, including seven people who had fractured vertebrae, fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen or a punctured lung. Twenty-nine others sustained concussions, cuts or scrapes. Ernst was treated and released for his injuries.
No one was injured on the second bus, which was rerouted to a church in Albertville before heading back to Pelican Rapids.
Judge Mossey thanked Weishair for speaking about his daughter and her passion for life.
“I know it wasn’t easy,” he said, noting to those in the gallery, including parents of other injured students, who gave written impact statements, “I’ve personally read every word of every impact statement.”
Eric Olson, Ernst’s attorney, spoke for his client, who he said was advised not to talk about the crash.
“From the very beginning, my client has been extremely upset and remorseful,” Olson said. “This was an accident.”
Ernst followed the planned schedule for the trip, Olson said, adding some factors that led to the crash were out of his client’s control. Ernst got a good night’s sleep and spent the day at the hotel resting before starting the overnight trip back from Chicago around 10 p.m.
“My client is a man of few words,” Olson said, noting that Ernst couldn’t express his emotions to the court, so he was allowing his attorney to speak for him. “He is extremely apologetic. He would have apologized a million times if he’d been allowed to.”
Prosecutor Brian Lutes, assistant Wright County attorney, said the case was among the most difficult he’s handled in 16 years as a prosecutor. Most criminal vehicular cases involve drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs or drivers exhibiting extreme conduct like drag racing or blatant disregard for traffic laws.
Lutes said others besides Ernst also share some blame, including school officials who organized the trip with two nights of overnight driving to avoid the cost of hotel stays.
“A lot of schools do it,” he noted. “Some choices were made to tragic results.”
Gretchen Schlosser is a reporter at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.