A Bemidji man who drunkenly crashed his pickup truck on a northern Minnesota highway late at night on St. Patrick’s Day and then tried to pin the crash on his dead passenger in the ditch along the highway will spend a year in jail.
Christopher G. Smith, 30, pleaded guilty Monday in Itasca County District Court to criminal vehicular homicide in connection with the death near Goodland of his friend, Mark A. Wirtjes, 56, a father of three from nearby Bovey.
Smith’s sentence also includes a stayed prison term of just shy of five years. He will be on probation for 10 years. He also was fined $1,085 and must undergo a chemical dependency evaluation and be subject to random testing.
On the night of March 17, a state trooper spotted a bloodied Smith standing on Hwy. 65 near his upside-down pickup. With him was passenger Michael P. Vail, 32, of Cass Lake. Both smelled of alcohol, the criminal complaint read.
The trooper asked who was driving. Smith replied “Mark,” according to the charges, and pointed to Wirtjes’ body in the ditch. Wirtjes, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the pickup.
Smith insisted he was in the front passenger seat. Vail said he was passed out drunk in the back seat and didn’t know who was driving.
A trooper later collected Smith’s items from a Hibbing hospital emergency room and found the keys to the pickup in his jacket pocket. Nurses there also said injuries to Smith’s side “would be consistent with him being the driver of a vehicle involved in a rollover crash,” the complaint continued.
Smith told the patrol he had five drinks at Wirtjes’ home before they all left for the Black Bear Casino in Carlton, about 75 miles to the southeast. The crash occurred within the first 20 miles.
A preliminary breath test at the scene measured Smith’s blood alcohol level at 0.108.