“Extreme” distraction from a ringing cellphone is suspected of causing a motorist to swerve on a rural Wright County road and fatally strike a college athlete out for a midday training run.
Linda L. Gullickson, 68, of Albertville, was charged by summons in Wright County District Court last week with criminal vehicular homicide in the Aug. 8 death of Phillip G. LaVallee, 19, a running star at Monticello High School who went on to compete for South Dakota State University.
LaVallee, of Otsego, was struck from behind and killed just after noon by Gullickson’s northbound van, which allegedly crossed two lanes of County Road 19 and onto the southbound shoulder, where the would-be college sophomore track and cross-country athlete was running.
Monticello track and cross-country coach Dave Wik said LaVallee was running on the correct side of the road while on a training run about 3 miles from his home.
Phone records show that Gullickson received a call on her cellphone from her husband about the same time she hit LaVallee, the complaint said. The call was not answered, and a voice mail was left.
Authorities found no evidence that Gullickson swerved away or used her brakes to avoid hitting LaVallee, noting that she was consistently driving 63.4 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone and probably with her cruise control engaged, the complaint said.
Gullickson’s “driving conduct and the level of inattentiveness … were so extreme as to amount to gross negligence because she failed to exercise even scant or slight care,” the complaint read.
Assistant County Attorney Brian Lutes, who is prosecuting the case, said Friday that there was no single act by Gullickson that led him to characterize her behavior as “extreme.”
“It was the totality of the gross negligence,” he said, adding that the timing of the crash and the incoming call “was certainly suspicious.”
The van rolled several times and came to rest on its roof, leaving Gullickson dangling in her seat belt. LaValle died at the scene, having suffered head and neck injuries.
Gullickson’s attorney, Dennis B. Johnson, said Friday that his client has “no recollection of a phone call coming in.” He suggested it may have come after the crash.
Johnson added, “I’m going to examine the van to see if there is something,” possibly a blown tire, that may explain what happened.
He described Gullickson as remorseful and “just a sweet little lady who wishes this day never happened.”
Distracted and deadly
Last year, distracted driving contributed to 17,598 crashes, 68 deaths and 8,038 injuries, according to state reports. In 2012, distracted driving in Minnesota was cited in fatal crashes nearly as often as drunken driving. Distracted driving also caused more than four times the number of crashes with injuries than drunken driving.
Prison time has been handed down in Minnesota for drivers who kill while distracted by their cellphone. In 2011, Jessica Howe, 29, was given the maximum four-year prison term for reaching for a dropped cellphone and then striking a vehicle stopped at a Columbia Heights intersection. The chain-reaction crash killed a 14-month-old boy.
Along with texting and making or receiving calls, drivers are also distracted by eating, putting on makeup, shaving, reading newspapers and adjusting the radio.
LaVallee left Monticello as the school’s premier distance runner. He tops its all-time cross-country honor roll and holds the school’s best time in the 800 meters and the 1,600 meters. He earned all-state honors in cross-country in 2011. In track in 2012, he was all-state in the 800 and on the 3,200-meter relay team.
LaVallee also excelled in the classroom at Monticello and at college in Brookings, scoring a GPA above 3.6 for a spot on the Summit League’s Distinguished Scholar list. He was majoring in civil engineering.