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Prominent Republicans, national media pick up on allegedly politically motivated killing of North Dakota teen

Prominent Republicans have tweeted about 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson's death, and some are questioning why Shannon Brandt was not charged with murder. Gov. Doug Burgum even issued a rare tweet about the case.

A boy with glasses and braces smiles and poses for a photo.
18-year-old Cayler Ellingson.
Contributed photo
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MCHENRY, N.D. — The case of an 18-year-old who was killed here in an allegedly politically fueled crash has garnered the attention of well-known Republicans and national media outlets, as well as criticism about how the case is being handled.

Donald Trump Jr., U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado have tweeted about Cayler Ellingson of Grace City, North Dakota. The teenager died in an early Sunday morning, Sept. 18, vehicle-pedestrian crash after a street dance in McHenry, a town of roughly 60 people about 50 miles north of Jamestown.

“A left wing political terrorist is walking free after intentionally killing an 18-year-old because he was a Republican just weeks after Biden declares war on MAGA,” Greene said in a tweet. “Not one (Jan. 6, 2021) defendant is charged with murder, yet they are rotting pretrial in jail not allowed to post bail.”

Court documents alleged Shannon Joseph Brandt, 41, of Glenfield, which is 12 miles south of McHenry, hit Ellingson with his vehicle around 2:40 a.m. that day because Ellingson threatened him. Brandt told 911 dispatchers that Ellingson was part of a Republican extremist group, adding he feared the teenager and others were “coming to get him,” the complaint said.

Brandt's claims that Ellingson was an extremist and called people to come after the motorist were unfounded, North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind told The Forum. Investigators continue to interview witnesses and gather evidence in the case, but nothing so far corroborates Brandt's statements, the state trooper said.

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A uniformed officer walks toward a State Patrol vehicle.
A trooper for the North Dakota Highway Patrol walks toward a patrol vehicle as troopers conduct interviews regarding the fatal vehicle-pedestrian crash that killed Cayler Ellingson in the city of McHenry, North Dakota, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
Matt Henson / WDAY

Brandt told the Highway Patrol he drank alcohol before the crash, the complaint states. He left the scene but returned to call 911 before leaving again, according to the complaint.

In a phone call before the crash, Cayler Ellingson told his mother, Sheri Ellingson, that “he” or “they” were chasing him, the complaint said.

Cayler Ellingson died Sunday at Carrington Hospital. His funeral is this coming Monday in Carrington, which is where he graduated from high school last spring.

Sheri Ellingson declined to comment at this time.

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Shannon Brandt, 41, had his first court appearance via zoom from the Stutsman County Jail Monday, Sept. 19.
WDAY

Brandt appeared Monday in Foster County District Court on felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of the crash. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

Judge James Hovey set a $50,000 bond in the case, which Brandt posted Tuesday. He is scheduled to appear again in court on Oct. 11 and did not have an attorney listed as of Thursday afternoon. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol said transcripts of the 911 calls would not be released because they are part of the investigation. The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services also declined to provide a transcript detailing the 911 calls. The Forum is seeking an attorney general's opinion on those matters because state law says 911 transcripts are open records.

The Forum first reported the crash on Sunday , but details about the incident did not surface until Monday when criminal charges were filed. InForum first published details of the complaint the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 19, and that story has garnered 211,000 pageviews as of noon Thursday, Sept. 22.

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Cayler Ellingson’s death has since been picked up by national media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN and Fox News. A GoFundMe account meant to help with funeral costs has raised more than $36,000 as of 5 p.m. Thursday.

The crash also prompted some to question why Brandt was not charged with murder. In an unrelated tweet, North Dakota Drew Wrigley said "Good morning" on Wednesday, which garnered more than 1,000 responses, mostly about charges against Brandt.

A county state's attorney is typically responsible for filing criminal charges on behalf of the state of North Dakota, not the attorney general. Wrigley told The Forum his office was not involved in deciding what charges to bring.

The prosecutor in the case is Foster County State’s Attorney Kara Brinster. She declined to comment on the case since it remains under investigation.

In cases of murder, prosecutors must prove a person intentionally or knowingly caused the death of another human. A murder charge can also be filed if a person killed another “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” or if the defendant was “under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there is a reasonable excuse” for the killing.

Criminal vehicular homicide can qualify for deaths that happen as a result of driving while intoxicated.

Wrigley said his office has received hundreds of calls about Brandt. He described his nearly 30-year career as a prosecutor as being one of aggressive investigation and prosecution. He also said he sought appropriate punishments in criminal cases.

He noted judges set bond in criminal cases.

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Conclusions in the case should be based on a thorough investigation and conduct either acknowledged by the defendant or proven beyond a reasonable doubt, he said. That takes time, commitment and resources, Wrigley said, adding he would offer the Foster County State's Attorney's Office help if requested.

"I share the outrage about a crime where a teenager is allegedly run down by someone who is allegedly intoxicated," Wrigley said. "I have every hope and expectation that the state's attorney handling this case will pursue it with vigor throughout."

In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, Wrigley called for an end to rhetoric that promotes violence.

"Political violence has become all too common and must come to an end," he said in the statement.

The Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which Wrigley oversees, is helping with the investigation, according to Wrigley's statement.

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the words “Joe Biden’s America” in reference to the crash. The Republican National Committee connected Cayler Ellingson’s death to a speech Biden gave in Philadelphia earlier this month, during which the U.S. president said, “MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

“Democrats have tried to explain away the harmful rhetoric perpetuated by Biden in front of millions, but as a family mourns the loss of their teenager because of his political beliefs, it’s clear the damage has already been done,” the Republican National Committee said in its statement. “Bottom Line: Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats must put an end to the dangerous and harmful rhetoric to ensure more families don’t share the same grief and heartache as the Ellingson family.”

The North Dakota GOP said it deplores violent rhetoric and actions.

"We need to hold each other accountable and set solid examples for our youth," the North Dakota Republican Party said in its statement. "Our heartfelt sorrow runs deep for this tragic loss of life."

In a statement to The Forum, the White House repeated Biden's words from his Philadelphia speech: Political violence does not have a place in America.

“As the President has made clear, this is a nation that rejects violence as a political tool and we do not encourage violence," the White House said. "It has no place in our political discourse and we condemn it.”

In a rare tweet about criminal cases, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum addressed the death Wednesday evening. It came after a Wednesday afternoon tweet about celebrating World Gratitude Day garnered more than 700 comments, many of which mentioned Cayler Ellingson.

“I’m betting #CaylerEllingson’s family isn’t feeling this way right now,” one response said.

“Tonight we pray for the family of Cayler Ellingson in the aftermath of their tragic and unnecessary loss,” Burgum tweeted. “Violence is never the answer to disagreements of any kind, including political, and those who perpetrate it must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

The Forum asked Burgum’s office why the governor felt the need to tweet about the case.

“The statement speaks for itself,” Burgum spokesperson Mike Nowatzki said.

Cayler Ellingson's death is heartbreaking and wrong, North Dakota Democratic Party spokewoman Laura Dronen said. She noted the political temperature in the U.S. is "very hot" and that people should reflect on how to lower it.

"A North Dakotan is dead and shouldn’t be," Dronen said. "We still don’t know the specific details of his death, and will be following the case as more information comes out."

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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