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Published May 01 2012

Jury takes less than an hour to convict Lemke on careless driving charge

MOORHEAD – After barely 40 minutes of deliberation, a six-person jury on Tuesday returned a guilty verdict for careless driving against Greg Lemke, a former Moorhead City Council member and Fargo police lieutenant who now serves as public safety director at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

The charge stemmed from Lemke’s role in a car accident that took place on Feb. 16 on 20th Street South in Moorhead involving himself and MSUM student Angelica Varriano.

In testimony Tuesday in Clay County District Court, Varriano claimed that the altercation started after Lemke slammed his brakes in front of her and came to a complete stop, preventing her from passing. She said he was making motions for her to pull over or get out of her car, which she ignored.

Varriano told the jury that when she then tried passing in the middle turning lane, Lemke sped up, and their cars collided when she attempted to pull in front of him.

After the collision, Varriano said she pulled over to the side of the road, at which point Lemke got out of his car, ran up to her driver’s side window and glared at her. Varriano said she called her mom because she was scared by Lemke’s actions.

Lemke denied ever coming to a complete stop or even applying his brakes in front of her. He told the jury that he noticed Varriano driving close behind him and flipping him off with her middle finger, which prompted him to decelerate.

He denied motioning for her to pull over, but admitted to “animatedly pointing” at a speed limit sign to try to get her to slow down.

Lemke testified that after dropping down to about 20 mph, he started accelerating to the speed limit of 30 mph. At that time, he claimed Varriano tried to pass him in the center lane. As she did so, she pulled into Lemke’s car and struck him, he said.

Assistant Clay County Attorney Lori Conroy tried to poke holes in Lemke’s testimony, referring to two differing statements that he gave to Moorhead police officer Scott Kostohryz.

Kostohryz testified that at the scene, Lemke said he had flipped Varriano off and sped up when she tried to pass him, which he admitted he shouldn’t have done.

But two weeks later, when Kostohryz delivered the careless driving citation to his home, Lemke denied he ever said those things. That conversation was recorded by Kostohryz, which Conroy played for the jury.

On Tuesday, Lemke testified he didn’t recall if he flipped off Varriano or not.

Despite the differences in Lemke’s and Varriano’s stories, Conroy told the jury in her closing statement it was Lemke’s actions of speeding up and gesturing to Varriano that ultimately resulted in the accident.

“He was focusing on what another driver was doing, when what he should have been doing was focusing on his own actions,” she said. “He should have known better.”

After the verdict, Lemke was sentenced by Judge Galen Vaa to pay a total fine of $185.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535