Fatal Halloween Gunflint Trail accident case closes

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Listen In Cook County court Wednesday afternoon, Rob Burgess, the 31 year-long domestic partner of victim Dr. Kenneth Petersen, reached across the prosecution desk to the defense table and momentarily squeezed the hand of Border Patrol Agent Maranda Weber. Weber originally faced two misdemeanor charges of failure to drive with due care and careless driving related to an accident in which Weber stuck and killed Petersen with her vehicle while Petersen was clearing a downed tree from the Gunflint Trail. Weber was on duty with the Border Patrol at the time of the accident. Judge Kenneth Sandvick dismissed the careless driving charge, and Weber pled guilty to the lesser charge of failure to drive with due care.

Judge Sandvik allowed two victim impact statements to be entered into the record. Susan Scherer was driving home from choir rehearsal with Petersen the night of the accident. Scherer helped Petersen clear the tree and saw him struck by Weber’s Border Patrol vehicle. She attempted to revive him and waited for emergency personnel.

“I wanted so much to believe he would be OK and that hope kept me focused on Ken,” Scherer told the court. “What if I had pushed Ken out of the way? I was overwhelmed with sadness. I was unable to protect Ken.” At the close of her tearful statement, Scherer said closure brought a need to apologize and to forgive. She said one way to help Ken now was to forgive. “I say this to you, Maranda…I wish you well.”

Rob Burgess, himself a retired general practitioner, said from the beginning of the ordeal, he was focused on prevention. “As I walked into the Grand Marais emergency room that night, I hugged Susan Scherer and told her: Nothing can change what happened. It’s done.” He further said, “We have to look at finding out what happened and work to prevent it from happening again.”

Burgess said each day holds some new pain, reminders of the loss. He said “I cry every day,” just not in front of people. He and Petersen, who split their time between Grand Marais and Alaska, were planning to stay at Seagull Lake year around. Burgess said he loved the community and wants to participate, but it is too difficult for him to regularly drive by the accident scene. He intends to return to Alaska.

Burgess then turned to Weber and said, “I knew Ken and I know he would forgive you.”

After the hearing Burgess commented, “The hardest thing for me was realizing that we may not get to know exactly what happened and that’s why I really tried carefully to make a statement that as a physician, we need to know. Truly I think I’d at least let her know that if you don’t know what happened, you need to find out if you’ve got some kind of neurological problem here that’s going to kick in again.”

In putting the case to rest, Judge Sandvik made several observations for the record. Chief among them was directed to the U.S. Border Patrol.

He said previous relations between the agency and community had been too adversarial. He said federal officers acted differently from local law enforcement. Local officers are members of the community. He asked the Border Patrol to feel themselves also a part of the community.

Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell said the plea agreement was totally appropriate. “It was a terrible accident,” he said.        

In comments made after the close of the case Scannell said, “I thought it was a very moving hearing and I think we ended up with the right result. I thought everything was handled as well as could be expected from the court and from the victims who both made eloquent and appropriate statements. The most important thing from my perspective is that we ended up with the right legal result here. We had evidence that there was a failure to drive with due care. I don’t believe as a prosecutor, there was evidence to sustain the more significant charge of careless driving.”

The charge of failure to drive with due care is a petty misdemeanor and carries a $200 fine plus court fees.

 


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