PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg will face three misdemeanor charges for hitting and killing a man with his car alongside a highway last September, a county prosecutor announced Thursday, Feb. 18.
Ravnsborg will face charges for operating a vehicle while using his cellphone, failure to keep his car in its travel lane, and careless driving. Each is a class 2 misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
The announcement from Hyde County State's Attorney Emily Sovell came more than five months after Ravnsborg admitted he hit and killed 55-year-old Joseph Boever with his car along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 14, just outside the limits of Highmore, S.D., the night of Sept. 12.
At a Thursday's news conference, Sovell, who was joined by Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore said she found that Ravnsborg's conduct did not meet the high threshold to charge him with a felony, either vehicular homicide or second-degree manslaughter.
- INVESTIGATION: What the Ravnsborg accident report said
- STATEMENT: What Ravnsborg said after hitting, killing Boever
- FAMILY: Boever's cousins return to site, seeking justice
Ravnsborg, in a statement released through a private spokeman, said he appreciated "more than ever, that the presumption of innocence placed within our legal system continues to work."
"I have and will continue to pray for Joe Boever and his family," he said. "I cannot imagine their pain and loss and I do send my deepest condolences to them.”
A Sioux Falls attorney confirmed he was representing Jenny Boever, Joe's widow, in an imminent civil lawsuit.
"The family deserves answers to what happened that night," said Scott Heidepriem. "The attorney general should be held accountable for his actions just like anyone else."
Boever's cousin, Nick Nemec, who has addressed the media in the past, was in the pressroom Thursday, and he also spoke to FNS following Thursday's announcement.
"I'm disappointed, but not surprised," said Nemec. "I'd been saying for months, 'I think he'll be charged with crossing the white line.' And that's exactly what he got charged with."
The high-profile case has drawn national attention not only because it involved the state's top law enforcement officer, who refused to step away from his job while under investigation, but for the bizarre circumstances of the incident, the lack of public comment by investigators and prosecutors and the length of time it has taken for Ravnsborg to face any charges.
The length of the investigation, which Sovell defended in the Thursday press conference, has previously drawn frustrated barbs from elected officials, including Gov. Kristi Noem.
Following Thursday's news conference, Noem sent out a tweet saying she'd direct the Department of Public Safety to share "additional details of the investigation" next week.
"My heart goes out to Joseph Boever's family," Noem said.
New evidence disclosed
The prosecutors disclosed new evidence about the night of the collision Sept. 12, some that partially confirmed statements made earlier by Ravnsborg.
The attorney general was returning to Pierre from a Saturday night Republican fundraiser at Roosters Bar & Grill in Redfield. Ravnsborg drove his red 2011 Ford Taurus onto north shoulder of Highway 14 where he struck Boever, who was carrying a light, investigators said in an accident report released Nov. 2.
Cellphone data also confirmed that, 15 seconds after striking Boever, Ravnsborg stopped his vehicle. After another 14 seconds, he unlocked his phone, and then another 16 seconds passed before he phoned 911.
At some point, said Moore, Ravnsborg did exit the vehicle and walk directly past Boever's body in the grassy ditch. As to why the attorney general didn't see the dead man's body at his feet, the prosecutors had no answers Thursday.
Boever’s pickup truck had stranded in the north ditch further west down the highway. Investigators haven't disclosed which direction Boever was walking or if his light was on.
Ravnsborg called 911 at 10:24 p.m., immediately introduced himself to the dispatcher as “the attorney general” and said the object he hit was “in the middle of the road," according to call audio released by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety on Oct. 13.
The 911 dispatcher implied Ravnsborg might have hit a deer, a not uncommon collision on a rural South Dakota road. The attorney general said he didn't know what he had struck, but it was possible he had struck an animal.
A photo of Ravnsborg's Ford Taurus, released Nov. 2 by DPS, showed a vehicle with a broken front right bumper, a battered hood and on the passenger side, a bashed in windshield.
Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lives nearby, responded to the scene but didn't notify dispatchers when he arrived, according to investigators.
Ravnsborg and Volek searched futilely with a cellphone flashlight in the ditch for signs of an animal, according to a two-page statement released by the attorney general on Sept. 14, two days after the collision, and confirmed by Moore on Thursday, citing cell phone analysis.
"It was a very dark night," Sovell said. "This was in a rural area. It's not well-lit by any artificial means. I think there's a lot of individuals who are passerby or investigated that they don't realize why he wasn't observed on the night in question. It was a dark night, and we don't have the answer to that."
The sheriff then loaned Ravnsborg his own vehicle to return to Pierre, the attorney general said.
Volek hasn't spoken publicly about the incident and has not responded to interview requests by Forum News Service. Investigators haven't publicly verified all of Ravnsborg's statement.
Early the next morning, the attorney general and a staffer drove back to Highmore, where they passed the collision site, with debris still scattered at the scene, Ravnsborg said in his statement.
The two stopped to search the scene and spotted a deceased Boever in the grass. Rather than call 911, the two drove to Volek's house, very near to the collision site, to report finding the body, Ravnsborg said.
Ravnsborg has maintained he did not drink at the Saturday evening event, attendees at the Redfield event corroborated his claims.
He submitted to a toxicology test the following day, after discovering Boever's body, and the tests came back negative. But the test results were essentially meaningless due to the lag in time after the collision.
Sovell said the investigation turned up no evidence Ravnsborg had been intoxicated.