A man whose farm trailer broke free from a tractor hitch southwest of the Twin Cities and fatally struck a couple on a motorcycle has pleaded guilty to a reckless driving charge while the felony counts are being dismissed.

Curtis M. Petzel, of Arlington, entered his plea to the gross misdemeanor last week in Sibley County District Court in connection with the deaths in June 2019 of Marvin D. Fandrich, 60, and Kathy L. Fandrich, 61, of Aberdeen, S.D.

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 couple’s family said the Fandriches were on a family vacation. Kathy Fandrich’s online obituary described Marvin and her as high school sweethearts married for 38 years.

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 jury trial. He initially was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminal vehicular homicide and misdemeanor careless driving.

“In these ever changing, uncertain times,” Assistant County Attorney Donald Lannoye explained in a letter to the couple’s family, “it is important to re-evaluate things in light of our current situation. … Even a once simple thing such as holding a jury trial now puts many people at risk of contracting COVID-19. … The [case] was re-evaluated in the context of a new world.”

Lannoye also pointed to other challenges in pursuing the felony charges. They included: Petzel’s brother testified in a hearing without dispute that he, and not Curtis, connected the trailer to the tractor; the difficulty of proving the gross negligence that the felony charges call 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.

Defense attorney John Skubitz agreed Wednesday that the prosecution “was not going to be able to prove gross negligence. … This was a one in a billion thing that happened here.”

Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 7. Skubitz said that his client “hopes there will be no jail time.”

Despite the plea to a lesser charge, Lannoye explained to the family in his letter that Petzel is subject to “a significance consequence, if the judge chooses to impose one.”

The reckless driving count carries a maximum of one year in jail and up to a $3,000 fine.

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.