A driver who caused an east metro crash that killed a woman pregnant with her second child pleaded guilty Monday and was sentenced to jail, along with orders to address classes about distracted driving.
Drew T. Fleming, 22, of North Hudson, Wis., admitted in Washington County District Court to reckless driving, a gross misdemeanor, in connection with the crash on Feb. 29, 2016, halfway between Lakeland and Bayport that killed 22-year-old Megan Goeltz of Hudson.
More than 13 months after the criminal complaint was filed, Assistant County Attorney Thomas Wedes said "it appears that he was texting while operating a motor vehicle."
However, County Attorney Pete Orput said Monday before the guilty plea that his team "went to extraordinary measures" to search Fleming's phone, but "nothing was there" pointing to him being on the device.
Fleming was immediately sentenced by Judge Richard Ilkka to at least 90 days in some form of custody, with the opportunity for release to attend school. He also was fined $500 and ordered to speak for a total of 20 hours to classes about the dangers of distracted driving, despite the lack of proof about his phone use at the time of impact.
The sentence also includes no alcohol or illicit drug use during the two years he is on probation, along with attending a drunken driving impact panel and undergoing chemical dependency evaluation and treatment.
Fleming was heading north on Hwy. 95, crossed the southbound lanes and veered into a ditch, the State Patrol said. From the ditch, his car hit an embankment and went airborne into Goeltz's car sitting at a stop sign at 22nd Street N.
The woman's father, a safety consultant who trains people on distracted driving, had pushed for felony charges. "We are extremely disappointed in all aspects of this situation," said Tom Goeltz, whose daughter was raising her 3-year-old daughter on her own and worked at a nursing home in Hudson at the time of her death.
Orput said that one challenge for prosecutors was that law enforcement didn't seek a blood sample from Fleming soon after the crash to test for drug or alcohol use.
"We next turned to a likely source for the incident — the theory that he was texting or viewing the internet while driving," Orput said. "We had a hellacious time trying to get into his phone, and in fact it wasn't until late last week that we found a law enforcement agency that was able to search the phone, and there was obviously nothing that would indicate that he was on his phone texting, etc."
Looking ahead, Orput continued, "this case bodes well for [Dakota County Attorney] Jim Backstrom's and my efforts to get the Legislature to pass a felony careless driving statute so that perhaps these incidents will not be occurring as often as they do. So far, we have been unsuccessful in that effort or an effort to pass a hands-free cellphone law such as California's."
Until state lawmakers recognize the extent of distracted driving, Orput said, "we are stuck with reckless or careless driving. [This is] very frustrating for us here."