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Driver sentenced in crash that killed Pelican Rapids student

BUFFALO -- The driver in the April 5, 2008, bus crash along Interstate 94 that killed a Pelican Rapids High School student was sentenced Friday to 30 days in jail, 30 days of house arrest and 30 days of community work service.

Loren Ernst, 71, of Moorhead, was sentenced Friday afternoon in Wright County District Court in Buffalo on a gross misdemeanor charge of criminal vehicular operation. He'd earlier entered a plea agreement that dismissed two felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide or operation in the case. The sentence handed down by District Judge Dale Mossey was in accordance with the agreement.

Kim Weishair, father of Jessica Weishair, the 16-year-old student killed in the crash, was the only person to give a victim impact statement during the 45-minute long hearing. His family is still outraged that Ernst kept driving the bus full of students while he was tired and dozing at the wheel, causing the crash. "The death of a child is a stab in the heart to each of us," Weishair said. "We remain outraged over what he did and the loss he caused."

The sentence included a year in jail, which was stayed, except for the 90 days in jail, house arrest and community service, for two years. Ernst was also ordered to serve two years of supervised probation, pay a $300 fine and restitution as determined by court services. Mossey indicated the restitution is losses not covered by insurance. Ernst began serving the jail sentence Friday at the Wright County Jail.

He was driving one of two charter buses carrying Pelican Rapids students and chaperones home from a four-day band trip to Chicago. At 5:48 a.m. April 5, 2008, the bus driven by Ernst, carrying 48 students and chaperones, left Interstate 94 near Albertville hitting a ramp before skidding on its right side. Jessica Weishair was pinned beneath the bus and died. About 90 minutes before the crash, Ernst had told the other bus driver he was tiring.

A total of 36 people were hurt in the crash, including seven people who had fractured vertebrae, fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen or a punctured lung. Twenty-nine others sustained concussions, cuts or scrapes. Ernst was treated and released for his injuries.

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

About 40 people nearly filled the courtroom, many crying as Kim Weishair gave his prepared statement. "There is no doubt that Jessica was going to be successful at whatever she was going to do," he said, adding that his daughter was planning on studying to be a pediatric nurse or going to medical school. She was kind and generous and becoming more and more like her mother, Stacy, every day, he said.

"We, as her parents, couldn't have asked for a better kid," he said. His daughter got her driver's license and started her first "real" job, both on her 16th birthday, March 25, 2008. The manager of the Pelican Rapids Cenex delivered Jessica's first paycheck to her parents after her death less than two weeks later.

"She never got to spend any of the money she'd worked for," her father said. Likewise, her actual driver's license came in the mail after her death.

Weishair asked the judge to sentence Ernst to the maximum. "We wanted you, Loren Ernst, to take responsibility for your actions," he said.

Judge Mossey thanked Weishair for speaking of his daughter's life and passion for life. "I know it wasn't easy," he said, noting to those in the gallery, including parents of other injured students, who gave written impact statements, "I've personally read every word of every impact statement."

Eric Olson, Ernst's attorney spoke for his client, who he said was advised not to talk about the crash from the beginning of the investigation and criminal case nearly two years ago.

"From the very beginning, my client has been extremely upset and remorseful," Olson said. "This was an accident."

Ernst followed the planned schedule for the trip, Olson said, noting that some of the factors that led to the crash were out of his client's control. Ernst got a good night's sleep and spend the day at the hotel resting before starting the overnight trip back from Chicago around 10 p.m.

"My client is a man of few words," Olson said, noting that Ernst couldn't express his emotions to the court, so he was allowing his attorney to speak for him. "He is extremely apologetic. He would have apologized a million times if he'd been allowed to."

Prosecutor Brian Lutes, assistant Wright County attorney, noted this was one of the most difficult cases he's had in 16 years as a prosecutor. Most criminal vehicular cases involve drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs or drivers exhibiting extreme conduct like drag racing or blatant disregard for traffic laws. This case was about a driver who got tired and was aware that he was tired before the bus crashed.

Lutes noted that there were others to blame, along with Ernst, including school officials who organized the trip with two nights of overnight driving to avoid the cost of hotel stays.

"A lot of schools do it," he noted. "Some choices were made to tragic results."

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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