Smashed: The toll of driving drunk in Minnesota

DNA tests turn DWI case on its head

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2010 - 6:38 AM

 New DNA evidence seems to show the confessed driver was really the passenger in a crash that killed a 19-year-old.

When authorities arrived at the accident scene in central Minnesota last August, they found 19-year-old Ryan DeZurik dead and belted in his Toyota Corolla. Nearby, two men stood outside of their battered white Hummer in a ditch.

One of the men, Timothy Rausch, identified himself as the driver and said he had swerved to avoid a deer. The 29-year-old was arrested after tests showed his blood alcohol level at 0.346 percent, quadruple the legal limit for driving.

Now it appears the confessed driver wasn't behind the wheel after all that night in rural Stearns County.

Court documents say DNA taken from blood and skin tissue found on the driver's side airbag match the DNA profile of 42-year-old Eugene Rivetts of Big Lake, who authorities believed had been riding in the passenger's seat. The Hummer was registered to Rivetts' wife.

Rausch's attorney, Tom Beito, is asking a judge to dismiss vehicular homicide charges. Assistant Stearns County Attorney Will Brost is declining to comment other than to say "we are engaged in conversations to get this resolved." Rivetts has not been charged and was unable to be reached, but a previously scheduled hearing Thursday morning in St. Cloud could clarify the case.

If indeed Rivetts was driving, it wouldn't be the first time he was involved in a case in which the passenger claimed to be behind the wheel in a DWI crash. Rivetts was convicted of drunken driving and giving false information to police after he crashed into a snowplow and fled the scene at 2 a.m. in Monticello on March 4, 1989.

According to Wright County court records from 21 years ago, Rivetts was found after a short search and brought back to the snowplow crash scene. "At first, the passenger ... had stated that she was the driver, and that the defendant [Rivetts] was the passenger." That passenger and Rivetts later admitted he was driving and tests showed his blood-alcohol level at 0.16 percent, twice the current legal standard.

In his motion to dismiss the current case, Beito points to an affidavit from Stearns County detective Robert Dickhaus that "reveals ... that Eugene Rivetts was actually driving the vehicle."

He said the skin and blood on the driver's side airbag match Rivetts' and don't match Rausch's or DeZurik's.

The fatal crash and its toll on DeZurik's family were described in a Star Tribune series on drunken driving earlier this year.

Sherrie DeZurik. Ryan's mother, said lawyers have briefed the family on the latest developments.

"Our instincts told us all along that Rivetts was driving and this confirms what we were already suspecting," she said. "We're willing to be patient while all this gets sorted out in court."

That could become complicated because authorities never tested Rivetts' blood-alcohol level at the scene. So proving he was drunk could be trickier now that the man who confessed and whose blood alcohol tested at 0.346 percent has DNA evidence putting him in the passenger's seat.

Why Rausch would have confessed to driving is unclear, but he had a clean record. Rivetts' record includes convictions for giving police false information and at least two DWIs, among numerous other criminal charges. Sherrie DeZurik thinks Rausch might have taken the rap for the DWI as a first-time offender, not realizing at the time the case would include three felonies and the death of her son.

"Some of these people, you can't even try to understand," she said. "We'll be patient. What other choice do we have?"

Ryan was 6 miles away from his home in Holdingford on Stearns County Road 17 when he was struck around 10 p.m. by the Hummer reportedly traveling 95 miles per hour. He was returning from his grocery store job in St. Cloud.

The family organized a well-attended memorial benefit concert last Feb. 19, where his favorite Christian "screamo rock" was played. Ryan would have turned 20 that day.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.
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    Tuesday January 19, 2010

    One family's grief reflects the toll drunken driving takes on roughly 180 Minnesota families a year.

  • Sherrie and Todd DeZurik

  • Timothy Rausch

  • Eugene Rivetts.

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