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Fargo man gets 60 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service for crash that killed friend

“I believe I deserve whatever punishment I get for the crash that I created,” the defendant said. “I caused the death of one of my best friends, and I’ll have to live with that mistake for the rest of my life.”

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Becky Johnson, the mother of slain Isaiah James Johnson, gives a victim impact statement during the Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, sentencing of Elijah Jace Viestenz for failing to report his friend’s death when he was killed in a Feb. 13 crash.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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FARGO — A Fargo man will spend 60 days in jail and complete 1,000 hours of community service after causing a crash that killed his friend.

Elijah Jace Viestenz, 20, apologized Tuesday, Jan. 18, in Cass County District Court for the Feb. 13 death of 21-year-old Isaiah Johnson of Fargo.

“I believe I deserve whatever punishment I get for the crash that I created,” he said. “I caused the death of one of my best friends, and I’ll have to live with that mistake for the rest of my life.”

Before the crash, the two had been drinking at Cactus Jack's Saloon in Fargo, according to a criminal complaint.

Viestenz, who was 19 years old at the time of the crash, was driving a vehicle at high speed before it hit a pole at Great Northern Drive and 18th Street North, police said in a criminal complaint. He called 911 and stayed on the scene until just before police arrived, his attorney Mark Friese said.

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Viestenz was thrown from the vehicle and was taken to the hospital by his mother to be treated for severe injuries, the complaint said.

Johnson died at Sanford Medical Center after being found at the scene of the crash.

Alcohol was found at the scene, police said, but Viestenz did not have alcohol in his system when he was interviewed by police at the hospital, Friese said.

It’s unclear when that interview took place, though police said in court documents they smelled alcohol on Viestenz’s breath.

Friese said Johnson encouraged Viestenz to drive faster to “test the mechanics” of the vehicle. His client wasn’t blaming Johnson for the crash, the attorney said.

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Elijah Jace Viestenz appears Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in district court for sentencing for failing to report the death of his friend, 21-year-old Isaiah James Johnson, who was killed in a Feb. 13 crash.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum

Viestenz pleaded guilty to a Class B felony charge that says he failed to give information and aid in connection to the crash. That charge carried a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Other charges, including manslaughter, were dismissed.

Prosecutor Nicholas Samuelson recommended 360 days in jail and three years of supervised probation, adding he felt the recommendation was fair given Viestenz’s age, lack of criminal history and willingness to take responsibility.

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Driving a vehicle with complete disregard for life is incomprehensible, Isaiah Johnson’s mother, Becky Johnson, said in court.

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Isaiah Johnson, pictured here with his mom, Becky, is remembered for his smile that could "light up a room." Special to The Forum

“The fact that you left him there in the freezing cold alone and dying in the snow is something I will never understand,” she said.

Viestenz didn’t leave the scene of the crash because he wanted to abandon his friend but because he was in shock, Friese claimed.

Friese noted Viestenz's dad was killed in a 2012 crash when Viestenz was 10 years old.

Becky Johnson said she drives for the ridesharing service Lyft because she wants to prevent drunken driving. She said she hopes Viestenz will grow and learn from the crash.

“I hope you will never get behind the wheel again even after one drink, Eli,” she said. “My hope for you is that you come out of this a better human.”

Viestenz said he needs to be sentenced to jail not only so the Johnson family can have justice but so he can heal.

Viestenz deserves a chance at redemption, Judge Tristan Van de Streek said. It’s why he sentenced the defendant to 60 days in jail and 1,000 hours of community service.

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“This is going to be a big part of your life for a long time, but I think there is a chance for some redemption for you,” Van de Streek said.

Viestenz also must serve three years of supervised probation and will lose his driver's license for 60 days. If he doesn’t violate probation, the case will be dismissed and the record sealed.

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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