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Highmore hopes to turn page after SD attorney general charged in deadly crash

The county seat of Hyde County in central South Dakota has found itself at the center of a months-long investigation into a car-pedestrian crash along U.S. Highway 14 involving the state's attorney general. On Thursday, prosecutors announced they would not charge the AG with a felony for reckless driving, only misdemeanors.

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A mural in the heart of Highmore, S.D. is covered with snow the morning on Thursday, Feb. 18. Hours later, the assistant state's attorney for Hyde County announced she would be pressing three misdemeanor charges against South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for a fatal accident that occurred west of town five months earlier. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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HIGHMORE, S.D. — A wind-mangled historic plaque stands just west of Highmore, S.D., announcing the town as the highest point on the railroad between Chicago and the Missouri River, a nod to the historic roots of the old train town.

But it's otherwise a quiet town, counting just under 800 people. It's the Hyde County seat. Branch offices for a telecommunications company sit a close walk from the grocery store. And there's a scattering of lots stretching to U.S. Highway 14, in the way small towns reach for a thoroughfare, any vein, to keep commerce from the outside coming into their rural American backyard.

That highway, however, has also now also brought infamy to the town.

"It's a horrible human tragedy," said Vikki Day, Highmore's mayor, who also serves as pastor, referring to the death of a local man last fall who was walking along the road on a Saturday night when the state's attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, struck and killed him with his Ford Taurus, leaving him in a ditch.

Five months later, on Thursday, Feb. 18, Hyde County Assistant State's Attorney Emily Sovell and Beadle County State's Attorney Mike Moore announced three misdemeanor charges against Ravnsborg in the death of Joe Boever . Day said she still hasn't gauged the town's reaction, what with the cold and the ongoing pandemic. But she was heartsick.

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"Not only Joe Boever's life, but the sheriff (Mike Volek) has been affected, Ravnsborg has been affected, Emily's (Sovell) life has been affected," Day said. "Quite frankly, I just pray for everybody."

Looking to solve the puzzle

Thursday, hours before the announcement, few in Highmore knew what to expect in the case that has gripped the state for months. In the offices of The Highmore Herald newspaper, a staffer sat behind a plastic glass shield, a pheasant painting on the wall and historic cookbooks under a case.

"I haven't heard anything," the woman said. "Guess I'll be listening to the press conference today."

Over at the Hyde County Courthouse, a square brick building designed by Deadwood architects over a century earlier, the clerk of courts stood in the stairwell, shaking her head.

"I know as much as you do," said Marilyn Hanson. "No one's dropped off anything."

And at Mashek Food Center, where patrons talked about an end to the cold snap, a sign hung on the door reading, "New Puzzles for sale."

The thing is, there's been a puzzle in town since the fall. And Thursday was supposed to solve it.

The rationale that had become a punchline across the nation — that Ravnsborg thought he hit a wild animal the night of the crash — didn't sound strange to two contractors working on a greenhouse across the main drag.

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"That's a notorious spot for deer," said one man, who wore a hood to protect against the cold, cutting wind and declined to give his name. "It's real bad coming out of those trees."

The other contractor, who said he "didn't know know him (Boever)," but could've recognized him "walking down the street," was waiting for answers.

"Hopefully the town, the family will put more of the details together today," he said, standing on a ladder, buttoned up in a burly coat and gloves, with the temperature rising to the mid-teens.

'I don't feel good about it'

It was much warmer in September when Joseph Boever, 55, saw his pickup stall the last night of his life, just west of those trees and that historic sign and the twin gas stations on either side of the highway marking what is Highmore to most passersby.

During Thursday's news conference in Pierre, Moore recounted fateful seconds — based on cellphone location data — sometime just before 10:24 p.m., when the state's attorney general struck Boever, who was walking on the north shoulder.

Not much else, notably, why was the state's top law enforcement officer driving in the shoulder at 67 mph, is known. Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek would arrive. A tow truck would arrive. But it wouldn't be until morning, say prosecutors, until anyone spotted a dead — or dying — man along the roadside.

"It was a very dark night. This was in a rural area," said Sovell, who had stayed silent for months on the case in the face of what she characterized as the public's "thirst" for knowledge. "It's not well-lit by any artificial means."

A flurry of questions came at the prosecutors. Was it OK for Volek, the sheriff, to loan the attorney general his car to drive back to Pierre? Was Ravnsborg speeding when he exited a 45 mph zone? And how come he apparently didn't see Boever, what with an implement dealership across the highway or the two gas stations or even passing traffic on this Saturday night to provide any extra light to the shoulder?

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Nick Nemec, a cousin of Boever's, attended Thursday's event. He said he was also stuck by the detail that cellphone data shows Boever's body may have been near — maybe very near — Ravnsborg and Volek minutes after the crash, but ostensibly was obscured by darkness.

"I think Ravnsborg dragged my cousin's body under his car along the highway," Nemec told Forum News Service in an interview Thursday. He noted the wide and long blood streaks trailing the car. "My cousin, I think, was stuck under that car while the sheriff and the attorney general were looking around with their cellphone flashlights."

But Nemec, like others, including the prosecutors, can only speculate.

At the end of Thursday's news conference, Moore responded to reporters' questions with an air of frustration in his voice.

"I don't feel good about it," said Moore, laying out the case that there is not evidence to prove Ravnsborg was reckless, merely negligent, in his driving that night. "But it's the right decision."

More answers may still come

The puzzle isn't all put together yet.

Gov. Kristi Noem has ordered the Department of Public Safety to release the evidence next week, which may bring more pieces, but maybe not all the pieces. But back in Highmore, there's hope for closure.

On Thursday, just before noon, the librarian — who's been working at the library since 1986 — was opening up.

"We've got a strong summer reading program," she said.

The woman, like many in town, declined to give her name. But she sighed loudly at the mention of Boever.

"He used to come in here a lot," she said, with a smile. "He loved fiction."

The library was quiet. On the wall was a row of Terry Redlin paintings donated by two local families, pictures of the idealized life in a small town, of South Dakota farmland on nights of blazing sunsets when everything seems to have turned out alright.

Those are the nights people like to remember.

"He (Boever) was quiet ... but really intelligent, too," she said, quietly. "It's just so sad."

Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek.

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