A Minnetrista man was drunk when his SUV broke through the ice on Lake Minnetonka last month, leading to the death of his 8-month-old daughter, who was submerged in her car seat, according to a criminal vehicular homicide charge filed Thursday.
The single felony count against Jonathan L. Markle, 41, stemmed from the Jan. 18 accident, in which Markle drove onto the frozen channel with his family about 5 p.m. Markle, his wife, Amanda, 31, and a second daughter, 2-year-old Isabelle, escaped from the submerged car and were treated for hypothermia. The baby, Tabitha, spent more than 15 minutes underwater before being rescued. She died three days later.
Jonathan Markle's blood-alcohol level was 0.13 two hours after the accident, the charges say. The legal limit to drive in Minnesota is 0.08. Markle told police he'd had two beers at Lord Fletcher's restaurant before he drove his family onto the ice and into the channel between Priest's and Halstead bays under the County Road 44 bridge, where the SUV broke through.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that judging by Markle's blood alcohol level, he probably drank more than two beers.
"I'm sorry -- you don't drive with a 0.13 anywhere, but I think anyone will agree with you that it's more dangerous to drive on the ice," especially on a channel, Freeman said. "Presumably, in Mr. Markle's case, alcohol had something to do with it."
Markle, who is in the Hennepin County jail, is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday afternoon. His attorney, Joe Friedberg, declined to comment at length, saying he didn't have enough information about the case. He said he agreed to represent Markle before Tabitha's death in the event that charges were filed.
Markle is coping "not very well," Friedberg said. "This is just a horrible matter. You can imagine what he feels like."
Freeman acknowledged Markle's repeated efforts to rescue his daughter from the freezing water before rescuers arrived. "There's no question he tried very hard," he said.
Perilously thin ice
The charges came as authorities reinforced warnings about dangerously thin ice on parts of Lake Minnetonka by putting up orange snow fencing around "Thin Ice" warning signs near channels.
Twenty vehicles have gone through the ice on the lake so far this winter. On Saturday, a man and his grandmother died when their car went through on a channel connecting Grays and Wayzata bays.
Harland Dietrich, 31, and his grandmother, Mary Ann Haram, 87, were trapped underwater and later died when Dietrich's car broke through thin ice near the Hwy. 101 bridge.
"We're putting the fence up not to block channels, but to get a bit more visibility and awareness for the thin-ice signs," said Maj. Darrell Huggett of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department.
While ice on Lake Minnetonka is 22 to 24 inches thick in many places, it is usually much thinner in channels, where water always flows. This winter, hundreds of reflective orange "Thin Ice" warning signs have been mounted on the lake. Well away from the mouth of a 50-foot channel, four or five warning signs are erected to warn people who are approaching, Huggett said. But they often are knocked down, he said.
"Snowmobilers use them for targets and run over them," he said. "The wind will take them over, too."
The Sheriff's Department is trying to increase enforcement of rules against destroying the signs.
Sending a message
Freeman declined to say whether Markle would have been charged had he not been drinking, but added that criminal vehicular homicide charges are most easily prosecuted when alcohol is involved.
In 2004, Markle was charged with operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol. He was convicted of careless operation of a watercraft and received a stay of adjudication for the drunken-operation charge, meaning it was dismissed once he met the conditions of his probation.
Freeman defended his decision to charge Markle, which came several weeks after he charged a Minneapolis man with felony manslaughter after his 2-year-old son was shot dead by his 4-year-old brother with a loaded semiautomatic pistol stashed in a bedroom.
"Someone would ask, 'Why do we charge these cases? Hasn't the family suffered enough?' The criminal justice system simply has no penalty that can approach the grief and the agony that this man must feel for the loss of his daughter at his own hand," Freeman said. "But we do have a responsibility to do something about ... saying this kind of conduct is not acceptable."