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Driver charged in fatal bus crash of Pelican Rapids H.S. students

It was his first overnight bus trip, and Loren Ernst was getting tired.

The charter bus he was driving drifted over the fog line twice in the early hours of April 5 as Ernst made his way back to Minnesota with a group of Pelican Rapids high school band students following a trip to Chicago.

Ernst, of Moorhead, acknowledged the poor driving at a rest stop in Menomonie, Wis., telling the driver who followed him in a second bus, "I'm getting tired," after Jake Blotsky said he had seen Ernst "drifting."

The buses pulled away from the rest stop about 4:15 a.m. and continued west until Ernst, 69, is believed to have dozed off at the wheel.

Ernst failed to negotiate a turn along Interstate 94 near County Road 37 in Albertville, Minn., and drove off the road - still going about 70 mph - and into the ditch.

He tried to get back on the road but struck an entrance ramp, rolling the bus and sending it skidding on its right side about 5:48 a.m.

The impact partially ejected 16-year-old Jessica Weishair from the bus, pinning her beneath it and causing her death.

Ernst would later tell investigators it's possible he dozed off when the crash occurred. In the 24 hours preceding the crash, Ernst had slept for 2½ to three hours.

A Minnesota State Patrol investigation determined Ernst operated the bus in a grossly negligent manner based on the details above, which are found in a Wright County criminal complaint charging Ernst with three felonies.

Ernst was charged Thursday with criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular injury and criminal vehicular operation.

Several of the 48 passengers were injured in the accident. Chaperones and members of a Pelican Rapids (Minn.) High School band were on board.

No one was injured on the second bus, which was rerouted to a church in Albertville before heading back to Pelican Rapids.

Assistant Wright County Attorney Brian Lutes said he filed three charges against Ernst rather than 40 or more, saying that from a negotiating standpoint it wouldn't make sense to ask someone to plead guilty to so many charges.

Lutes accounts for each person injured in the charges, stating their injuries. People with similar injuries are grouped together as victims in the second and third counts.

The second charge alleges substantial bodily harm was caused and lists seven people with injuries such as fractured vertebrae, fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen and a punctured lung.

The third charge alleges bodily harm and lists 29 people with injures such as a concussion, cuts, scrapes and a torn muscle.

Ernst, who was treated and released after the crash, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Reached outside his Moorhead home two weeks ago, he told a reporter he had nothing to say.

Ernst is scheduled to appear in Wright County District Court at 1:30 p.m. on July 21. He will not be arrested before the hearing and likely will be released on his own recognizance, Lutes said.

A woman answering the phone at Blotsky's residence said "he's been told not to speak with anyone," but would not say who gave those instructions.

An attempt to contact the Weishairs was unsuccessful late Thursday.

Jay Richards, co-owner of Richards Transportation Services, which owns the bus, said he did not want to comment about the incident.

When asked about his policies for drivers, Richards said nobody is supposed to drive tired.

"We run straight by (Department of Transportation) regulations," he said. "How much stricter can you get?"

Charter bus driver Rich Willem has been with the company for 12 years, but said he didn't know Ernst, who had been with the company since January.

Drivers are supposed to get eight hours of sleep for every 10 hours of driving, but Willem said it's up to the drivers themselves to follow that.

"It comes down to common sense and good judgment," Willem said. "They're the most important person on the bus. It just takes a second and something can happen."

Forum reporter Kelly Smith contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541