A three-week jail term was given Thursday to a Minnesota dairy farmer whose trailer broke free from a tractor hitch southwest of the Twin Cities and fatally struck a couple on a motorcycle.
Curtis M. Petzel, of Arlington, was sentenced on his 61st birthday while standing in Sibley County District Court and expressing his remorse for his role in the incident that killed Marvin D. Fandrich, 60, and Kathy L. Fandrich, 61, of Aberdeen, S.D., in June 2019.
Petzel pleaded guilty before Judge Jessica Maher in November to reckless driving, a gross misdemeanor. Dismissed were felony counts of second-degree manslaughter, criminal vehicular homicide and misdemeanor careless driving.
The Fandriches were riding on Hwy. 19 in Arlington Township, about 20 miles west of Belle Plaine, in a group of three motorcycles at the time of the collision. The Fandriches were on a family vacation. Kathy Fandrich's online obituary described Marvin and her as high school sweethearts married for 38 years.
"He spoke briefly and expressed his condolences," attorney John Skubitz said of his client. "Judge Maher did find that he has shown remorse throughout. We think it's an unfortunate and tragic situation."
Skubitz said the couple's daughters and other relatives read statements during sentencing, making for "a very emotional hearing. They were very eloquent."
Petzel received credit from the judge for one day in jail and will be able to serve the remaining 20 days on work release, allowing him to continue tending to his dairy operations. He also must perform 100 hours of community service and be on probation for two years, his attorney said.
The County Attorney's Office pointed to several factors — among them the coronavirus pandemic — in deciding to allow Petzel to plead to only a gross misdemeanor rather than pursue a felony jury trial. They included: Petzel's brother testified in a hearing without dispute that he alone connected the trailer to the tractor; the difficulty of proving the gross negligence that the felony charges called for; and the risk of a jury acquitting on all counts.
A State Patrol investigation determined that the trailer came free because the wrong-size ball was used for the hitch. Curtis Petzel also failed to use safety chains that were available and did not have a battery in his breakaway brake system, which is designed to bring a trailer to a safe stop should it come free.
Petzel caused another fatal crash in August 2017, according to court records. In Gaylord, Petzel drove his pickup truck into the back of a car and sent that vehicle in front of a motorcycle heading the other way. The collision killed Brian R. Severin, 59, of Gaylord. Petzel was convicted of misdemeanor careless driving and was sentenced to two days in jail, a year's probation and community service and was fined $400.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482