North Dakota man admits to running over, killing teen after street dance
Forty-two-year-old Shannon Brandt pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
WAHPETON, N.D. — A North Dakota man has pleaded guilty to killing a teenager last fall after a street dance in McHenry, North Dakota.
Shannon Joseph Brandt, 42, of Glenfield, entered the plea on Thursday, May 18, to manslaughter, a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison. The hearing lasted less than five minutes.
The plea comes less than two weeks before Brandt was slated to stand trial for the death of 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson.
"Shannon has never denied responsibility for his part in this tragic accident," Brandt's attorney, Mark Friese, said in an email to The Forum. "A plea of guilty permits him to accept responsibility while limiting the stress and emotional toll for all involved."
Prosecutors have agreed to dismiss a felony charge of leaving the crash scene. Judge Bradley Cruff ordered a presentence investigation to determine a recommended sentence.
Brandt will be sentenced at a later date.
Brandt initially was charged with criminal vehicular homicide after hitting Ellingson, of Grace City, with a vehicle shortly after 2 a.m. Sept. 18 in a McHenry alley. The charge carried a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol said the two got into a political argument, claiming Brandt thought the teenager was a "Republican extremist" who was calling people to come after the motorist.
The patrol later backtracked on that narrative, and prosecutors said during a preliminary hearing that it's unclear why the two crossed paths and what they were actually arguing about.
Brandt said, according to a 911 transcript, that he thought Ellingson said something about a Republican extremist group and that he was trying to escape Ellingson. Friese said state troopers made "erroneous claims."
The crash sparked outrage across the nation, with prominent Republicans questioning why Brandt hadn't been charged with murder, a felony that could have sent the North Dakota man to prison for life. Foster County State's Attorney Kara Brinster filed the harsher murder charge on Sept. 30.
Brinster didn't give The Forum a reason for seeking the more serious charge, though Friese alleged it was due to public uproar. Earlier this month, Brinster lowered the charge to manslaughter.
Brinster did not responded to a message left by The Forum. Attorney Tim O'Keeffe, who is representing Ellingson's family, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Manslaughter means Brandt recklessly caused Ellingson's death by running him over. A person is guilty of murder if they intentionally or knowingly caused the death of another.
Brinster noted Brandt had been drinking before the crash. Court documents alleged Brandt had "10 to 13 beers at the bar prior to the crash."
The culpability for manslaughter is lower than murder because "recklessly" means a person didn't cause the death on purpose or know that they were committing a crime, according to North Dakota law.
That charge would typically be punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but Brinster sought a dangerous special offender designation against Brandt. That would allow her to seek up to 20 years in prison since he used a "dangerous weapon" to kill Ellingson.
The plea agreement called for Brinster to abandon that designation.
What could have happened at trial
The trial was slated to begin May 30 and was expected to last nine days. Attorneys agreed to move the trial to Wahpeton in Richland County. Trying the case in Foster County would make it hard to find a jury that would treat Brandt fairly, Brinster said.
Prosecutors had endorsed more than 100 witnesses, but a list filed in court cut that number in half.
The defense planned to bring up various issues that could have raised doubt in the case. A private investigator with experience in law enforcement and detective work drafted a summary that said state troopers did not take photographs of the scene immediately after the crash.
"The absence of a reconstruction is suspect given the fact the State Patrol does a significant number of reconstructions in any type of fatal accident," according to the summary report that was filed this week.
State Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind told The Forum that photos were not taken shortly after the crash because Brandt failed to contact 911 immediately after the incident. Troopers later photographed the scene with a drone and took pictures of Brandt's vehicle.
"Photos were taken when law enforcement was able to establish the incident location and had the time to take photographs as part of the investigation," Niewind said. "There were many moving parts during the early parts of the investigation to include determining Ellingson’s condition, locating Brandt, locating the vehicle involved in the incident, interviewing witnesses and several other investigative needs."
Troopers also didn't cordon off the crash scene to make it inaccessible to the public, the defense's private investigator said in his report. Minimal on-scene investigative activity was conducted to determine the vehicle's movement, and several items of evidence were not collected or examined to determine their significance, the report said.
"Remarks made by various state patrol officers in their report would provide insight to their difficulty in discerning whether this was an accident or intentional act," the report said.
Niewind said a law enforcement officer remained at the crash site until the scene was processed.
The defense requested data from Ellingson's cellphone, saying it could show the teen's alleged past behavior of bullying and that his family's conduct may have contributed to his death. Friese said in court filings that Ellingson's family may have given him alcohol before the crash and helped him obtain a fake ID.
Briefs from the defense also alleged Ellingson displayed "aggressive or instigative conduct" and bullied others in the past.
An autopsy report showed Ellingson had a blood alcohol concentration over 0.2%, the defense said.
State troopers said Brandt's blood alcohol level was at least 0.08% after the crash. A motion filed by the defense said that test was taken five hours after the crash.
The defense planned to present evidence of Brandt's autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, according to a brief filed Thursday. That same brief said Brandt called his parents multiple times the morning of the crash claiming Ellingson was threatening him.
"Mr. Brandt's parents will testify Mr. Brandt was terrified, beyond any level of fear they had observed in him over 42 years," the defense's brief said.
Prosecutors tried to prevent the defense from presenting information on Brandt's diagnosis to a jury.
Ellingson's family said the accusations made against their son were baseless and a form of victim-blaming. Ellingson also called his parents before the crash, saying someone was after him.