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Wendy Reuer, Published May 05 2012

'Something that will stick with us forever': Alleged car theft ends in disturbing scene on I-94

WEST FARGO - Jeff Rust and Kim Mickelson watched with wonder as a man climbed over the guard rail of the bridge across Interstate 94 they were about to pass under just east of Rothsay, Minn.

The man shuffled toward a spot above their lane, teetering on the ledge with just one hand on the rail.

Rust said they thought maybe the man was just goofing around. Maybe he was going to throw something at their car.

Instead, he jumped.

And that was just the start of a startling end to the incident April 25, which allegedly began with a car theft by the man who leapt from the bridge, Joseph Schleeter, 27, of Rothsay.

“Just that image in our mind, seeing him jump off the bridge. It’s something that will stick with us forever,” Rust said.

Rust swerved sharply. Mickelson heard the tires squeal and looked in her passenger side mirror to see Schleeter drop onto the road.

“When he landed, he was right by our back door of the car,” Mickelson said.

Rust pulled over, but not before he could see Schleeter apparently trying to jump in front of other oncoming cars. One of those vehicles was driven by Rusty Collins, who was headed back home to Indiana from a visit to Minot.

Collins said he slowed down and passed the man in a black shirt without incident but in his rearview mirror, it looked as though he tried to jump in front of the next car. He then saw Schleeter lunge towards a passing semi.

“He was definitely trying to get himself run over,” Collins said. “When he dove for that semi ... that was no joke. He was really trying to get his body under that semi.”

According to the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Office, some of the passersby got out of their vehicles and subdued Schleeter until deputies arrived.

Rust, Mickelson and Collins knew the man was still alive when they left the scene. But what they didn’t know is that they witnessed only the end of the incident in which authorities allege Schleeter stole a car at 134 1st Ave. SW in Rothsay at about 6:30 p.m., just outside Ole and Lena’s Pizza.

While trying to get away with a Saturn Ion, Schleeter ran over its owner, Peggy Jo Hokanson, 44.

Hokanson was taken to Sanford Health in Fargo and treated for her injuries. Sanford representatives said last week there was no record of Hokanson at the hospital. Calls to a phone number listed for Hokanson weren’t answered.

Schleeter soon crashed the car on County Road 24 and began walking toward the road’s bridge over I-94, authorities say.

Last week, Wilkin County Chief Deputy Josh Nack said Schleeter is still at St. Mary’s Hospital in Detroit Lakes. He said Schleeter underwent surgery for leg and ankle injuries.

It is not yet known if Schleeter intended to hurt himself or others during the incident, said Sheriff Rick Fiedler. “We’re not exactly sure what he was trying to do,” he said.

Fiedler said a report for possible charges was sent to Wilkin County Attorney Tim Fox.

Fox said Friday that he has not yet evaluated the case. However, he is aware there will be a mental health evaluation of Schleeter in Otter Tail County, where he lives.

“That’ll have to sort itself out first,” Fox said.

Schleeter has a history of minor run-ins with the law, mostly misdemeanors other than a conviction for felony burglary in Otter Tail County when he was 17. He was convicted in 2009 in Stearns County for fleeing a police officer by means other than a vehicle and theft, both misdemeanors.

For Rust and Mickelson, what happened on I-94 will have a lasting impact.

“I could only handle going to work for a couple hours the next day, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Mickelson said. “Going under overpasses now, I watch them closely, and it makes me a little anxious. Go over them and it’s like, how did he survive when you see how high they are?”

Rust and Mickelson said they pass between emotions of concern for the man and anger for the danger he put them in. Yet Rust believes it may have happened the way it did for a reason.

Rust, 41, moved to West Fargo more than a year ago from the Fergus Falls area. The trip was routine, except for an odd annoyance at the gas station. Rust said the pay-at-the-pump would not take his credit card, so he had to go inside, adding time to the couple’s plans.

“We were meant to be in that place at that time, I think,” Rust said. “Maybe because we were able to avoid him, I don’t know.”

The couple said they simply hope Schleeter can get the help he needs, and that one day, they can make sense of what they saw.

“My concern is now the kid gets some help so nobody else has to go through this,” Rust said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530