A 24-year-old motorist with a slew of driving infractions has admitted that his cellphone diverted his attention when he rammed his SUV into the back of a stopped car on a southern Minnesota highway, killing the other driver and her daughter, authorities said.
Rachel Harberts, 43, of Dodge Center, Minn., was taken off life support at a Rochester hospital and died Saturday, eight days after the Sept. 7 crash on Hwy. 14 in Claremont killed her 8-year-old daughter, Emerson Harberts, and badly injured her 12-year-old son, Jaxon Harberts.
Rachel Harberts was a lifelong Minnesotan and a first-grade teacher and junior high volleyball coach at Blooming Prairie School. She and her children were heading to school before the start of classes for all three that Friday. Emerson was a third-grader, and Jaxon is in seventh grade.
Emerson "loved going to school and reading," her obituary online said. "In her free time, you would find her singing, dancing, playing dress up and swimming. Emerson just learned how to water ski this year. … Emerson loved receiving flowers on her birthday from her daddy, which was something she looked forward to every year."
A combined service is scheduled for midday Thursday in Rochester, prompting school officials to call off classes across the district for roughly 725 students.
"An overwhelming number of staff and students will be attending, which would make the school day nonproductive," a notice posted Tuesday on the district website read. "This may cause some minor hardship for some, but we need to allow our district to grieve in an appropriate manner and time frame."
In the days since the crash, high school sports teams have been showing their support for the Harberts family and the wider school community. Volleyball players wore purple ribbons on their shoes for a match and braided their hair in a nod to how Emerson often wore hers.
The driver of the SUV, Tanner R. Kruckeberg, also of Dodge Center, was not injured. A State Patrol investigation could take as long as 90 days from the date of the crash.
Kruckeberg admitted to authorities that while in his family's 4,700-pound Hummer H3 "he was looking down at his center console area to put away his cellular phone, when he looked up, he rear-ended the [Harberts'] Mercury," according to a search warrant affidavit filed by the State Patrol.
"Distracted driving is an epidemic on our roads" and contributes to roughly one in four traffic deaths in Minnesota, state Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson said Tuesday. "We know what a problem it is on the road."
Citations statewide have risen from 1,707 six years ago to 7,357 last year, according to state data. And while the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) attributes 325 deaths in the past five years to distracted driving, the total may be higher.
Distracted driving "is vastly underreported and extremely difficult to prove" absent significant facts such as drivers confessing or a solid statement from a witness, Hanson said.
The DPS supports making it illegal for a motorist to be holding a phone while driving, even while making a call. Among the 17 states that have passed such a law, 13 saw a 15 percent or greater reduction in crashes, Hanson said.
"We can draw the conclusion that [a] hands-free law does make a difference," he said.
According to his driving record, Kruckeberg has been piling up infractions in southern Minnesota from age 16 through April of this year, when he was cited for going 89 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone.
He was convicted in 2014 for using his cellphone to text while driving after dark on Hwy. 52 in Rochester, according to court records. He's also been convicted at least nine times for speeding and three times for driving while his license was suspended. His license was valid at the time of the crash, according to the DPS.
Kruckeberg also has been convicted five times for underage drinking and once for drug possession.
When Kruckeberg crashed about 7:10 a.m., the Hummer's front wheels came to rest on the rear end of the car, the State Patrol affidavit said.
Emerson was found dead at the scene in a child booster seat in back of the car, while Rachel Harberts and Jaxon were in front and wearing seat belts, the affidavit said.
An online fundraising campaign has been started to help cover the family's medical and funeral expenses.
The funeral service for Rachel Harberts and Emerson is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Rochester. Visitation is scheduled for 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ranfranz and Vine Funeral Homes in Rochester and again one hour before the service at the church.