DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Aaron Lee Pelham, 38, of Waubun, Minn., was sentenced on Wednesday, June 2, to 19 months behind bars in connection with a June 2019 crash that resulted in the death of a 27-year-old Ogema man.

With good behavior, Pelham could be released after serving about 13 months.

He pleaded guilty in Becker County District Court to one count of failing to stop following a crash that resulted in the death of Michael Joe Tibbetts.

The June 24, 2019, crash involved a collision between a side-by-side utility vehicle and a car near the intersection of County Road 158 and Wilkinson Lane, about 20 miles north of Detroit Lakes.

When authorities arrived on the scene, they found Tibbetts trapped in the utility vehicle with traumatic injuries, according to the Becker County Sheriff's Office.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Tibbetts was flown to a hospital in Fargo where he died the next day.

According to court documents:

Investigators determined Pelham was the owner of the car involved in the crash, and in early July 2019 investigators spoke with a male who said Pelham contacted him and a woman through Facebook messenger 10 minutes before the crash.

Later, investigators spoke with a woman who said Pelham called her on the Facebook messenger app, saying he was coming over. She also told investigators he called 20 minutes later saying there had been an accident, and he needed a "licensed driver."

The woman told investigators that when she arrived at the crash scene Pelham was standing between the car and the utility vehicle and appeared panicked.

Court documents also state the woman told investigators Pelham left the scene in a pickup truck with a male.

At Wednesday's court hearing, which was conducted over Zoom, Judge Jay Carlson sentenced Pelham to 19 months, the term agreed to as part of a plea agreement.

Carlson also ordered Pelham to pay $7,500 in restitution and gave him credit for having already served 346 days.

In Minnesota, inmates who behave in prison typically serve two-thirds of their time behind bars and one-third on supervised release.

Based on that, Pelham would serve nearly 13 months behind bars, based on the sentence handed down Wednesday.

The judge dismissed a count of criminal vehicular homicide that was pending against Pelham.

Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald released a statement after the sentencing, saying that to prove the criminal vehicular homicide charge the prosecution would have needed to prove Pelham was the substantial cause of the collision.

As the case progressed, additional information came to light that cast doubt on the prosecution's ability to prove that essential element of the crime, he said.

"Thus, while the state could not ethically pursue Count 1 at trial, the state believes Mr. Pelham was properly sentenced to the offense supported by the evidence. My thoughts remain with the Tibbetts/Fairbanks' family over the tragic loss of their son and brother, Michael," McDonald wrote.

Before the sentence was handed down, Tibbetts' mother, Rosella Tibbetts, spoke to the court, stating that after suffering the loss of her son, "It's hard to wake up every morning and pull yourself out of bed."

She also described her son's accomplishments, which she said included graduating from college with a 4.0 GPA and being hired as the economic development director for the White Earth Nation.

Tibbett said her son knew he had talents but never acted like he was better than anyone else.

"He wasn't a bragger, he was just proud of what he could do," she said, adding: "He brought life to every room he entered."