A 'dreadful' trial begins: Families remember victims of 2013 crash
Maegan Spindler had a sparkle — an absolute passion for the outdoors, particularly as a fisheries biologist.
Her mentor, Robert Klumb, had a similar aura about him, with a great interest in fisheries conservation and known as an expert on Missouri River fish.
Both were killed in a crash on July 8, 2013. The court trial of their accused killer, Ronald Fischer Jr., who was driving the vehicle that struck Spindler and Klumb, is set to begin on Monday in Lake Andes. It is scheduled to last for two or three days.
Klumb, who was 46 and a Pierre resident, was the lead research biologist in Pierre's U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office. Spindler was 25 and originally from Cazenovia, N.Y. She was a fisheries technician assistant for Rob that summer. The two and another employee were packing their boat for the following day when a van blew through the T-intersection at S.D. Highways 18 and 46.
The van, driven by Fischer, now 30, of Lake Andes, killed Klumb and Spindler, and narrowly missed the third federal employee.
'Her loss is still very much with us'
Spindler was starting her career as a fisheries biologist and was planning to get her master's degree in the field. Rob had given her the confidence to move forward with that plan, said Mike Spindler, Maegan's uncle, in an email to The Daily Republic.
She took the position as a fisheries technician assistant to broaden her experience in the field, said Susan Spindler, Maegan's mother, in an email.
"The pain of her loss is still very much with us," Susan Spindler said. "All the things that we enjoyed with her -- the garden, hiking, vacations at the beach -- don't seem so enjoyable as they remind us of her."
The hole left in the Spindler family is still so raw that Susan and her husband, Gregg Spindler, have avoided being home on Christmas and during Maegan's birthday. The couple used a friend's cottage on the first anniversary of Maegan's death to get away.
"Most days I cry at least once, sometimes several times a day. I cannot sleep through the night," Susan Spindler wrote. "I go to sleep thinking of her with tears in my eyes, I wake in the middle of the night sad, and I wake up in the morning with tears in my eyes again. I have people ask me about her and I just break down and cry."
Even those who knew Spindler a short time could identify a special something that made her passionate.
Dr. Steve Chipps is the unit leader of the South Dakota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. He described Spindler as having "a bright sparkle" when it came to her dedication to conservation.
He had Spindler as a student for one week as a part of a federal boat safety class. Part of the training included navigating a 19-foot aluminum flat-bottom rectangular boat and dock it successfully. Because it's flat-bottomed, it's very difficult to maneuver, Chipps said.
In a sympathy letter to Maegan's parents, Chipps described the incident.
"She and two other students (both males) were in the boat with me -- and on her first attempt, she docked the boat as if she had been driving it for years," Chipps wrote. "Of course, the other two guys thought this must be easy if she did it so flawlessly -- needless to say, we spent the next 45 minutes bumping into the dock, approaching it sideways, etc., as it took each of them about six attempts to get it right."
Chipps added that he winked at Maegan as she had a "slight, yet humble smile on her face."
Chipps said in an interview with The Daily Republic it's rare to spot someone with such passion for their job as Maegan had.
"She was at that point in her life she was serious about her career and taking the next step to grad school," Chipps said. "That's what made her quite different from other students."
Chipps said Klumb had a profound influence on Maegan as well. In the week of training with Spindler, Chipps said she spoke highly of the opportunity given her through the position and through Klumb's mentorship. Chipps said Klumb also thought highly of Spindler.
"I remember him saying, 'We've got an intern that's really good. She's headed to grad school, so keep an eye on her. She has a lot of promise as a fisheries person,' " Chipps said.
Lending a helping hand
Klumb always worked well with young people, Chipps added. Klumb was a mentor and open to others' ideas and opinions.
"He was very inclusive of that. That's what made him pretty unique in my mind," Chipps said.
Chipps said Klumb often helped budding scientists get positioned for the next career step, ready for grad school and help them along the way. His attitude toward life helped fuel his passion for his job.
Chipps described Klumb as a person full of energy and fun to be around. He had strong political views and wasn't afraid to share them, Chipps said with a chuckle.
"He kind of approached life with a kind of openness that pervaded everything he did," Chipps said.
According to a memorial piece written by Chipps and other colleagues, Klumb was an adjunct professor at South Dakota State University. He was instrumental in "coordinating federal research needs with graduate student education."
Klumb was well-known throughout the state and the nation for his expertise on fish of the Missouri River, particularly his research work on the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species.
Attempts to reach Klumb's family for this story were unsuccessful.
On a personal note, Klumb had a huge taste for eclectic music, and often shared that love through records with his friends, according to the memorial. This is just one example of his "colorful, energetic and always positive" attitude he had for life in general.
Rob taught the aspiring fisheries biologists he mentored through hands-on example, including Spindler.
The day Klumb and Spindler were killed, they had been on the Missouri River doing research and were planning their next day's venture when Fischer's car struck them.
Dreading the trial details
Earlier this year, Fischer waived his right to a jury trial, which means the judge will hear all the facts and arguments of the case and decide the verdict.
Judge Bruce Anderson will preside over the trial, which begins Monday in Lake Andes.
Fischer is charged with two counts of first-degree manslaughter, a felony with a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine; two counts of vehicular homicide, a felony with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine; and one count of drunken driving and ingesting a non-alcoholic substance to become intoxicated, both misdemeanors.
On July 8, Fischer was driving a 2003 Chrysler Town and Country minivan on state Highway 18 when he didn't stop at a stop sign at the intersection of Highways 18 and 46.
The van barreled into the parking lot of the Dakota Inn where it crashed into Klumb and Spindler.
Maegan's parents, Susan and Gregg, are attending the trial, Gregg said in an interview with The Daily Republic.
"It's going to be dreadful sitting through it, because there are so many details we haven't heard," he said. "We will excuse ourselves at some point because it will be extremely detailed and there will be photographs. We don't need to see that."
The Spindlers asked for the "sanitized version" of the police report when Maegan was killed and only recently learned both Maegan and Rob had been dismembered when struck by Fischer's vehicle.
Even more recently, Gregg Spindler said they found out Maegan was still alive just after the crash.
"Maegan was alive when she was thrown into the grass," he said. "A physician's assistant who was playing golf nearby checked her pulse, but obviously he is a medical professional and has to make decisions. She was gone."
The physician's assistant helped extricate Fischer from the van he was driving, Spindler said. Fisher was seriously injured in the crash and airlifted from Wagner Community Hospital to a hospital in Sioux Falls for treatment. According to court documents, Fischer's blood alcohol content was 0.232 percent, more than twice the legal driving limit in South Dakota of 0.08 percent. The blood test also showed he had marijuana in his system.
The Spindlers understand medical professionals had to attend to those who were alive and had a chance of being saved, but said the thought of Maegan dying in the grass alone was heartbreaking.
"For us to think of her dying alone and no one to hold her and tell her we love her, it hurts us," he said, pausing. "It hurts us."
Shortly after the crash, Spindler began a campaign of sorts to raise awareness and influence officials to look into changing state laws to be tougher on drunken drivers.
His conversations and meetings went all the way to a personal visit with Gov. Dennis Daugaard's office, which seemed promising for quite some time.
"That door was slammed shut on Feb. 5 by the governor," Spindler said. "I've had no communication from his office since then. Feb. 5 was the last day to introduce new laws into the session. I think what they were doing was stringing us along to contain negative publicity."
Spindler doesn't plan to continue with his campaign unless he either gets a response from the governor's office after the trial is complete or if there are people in South Dakota or elsewhere willing to spend more time on it.
"Susan and I are pretty burned out on everything," Spindler said. "If groups don't pick it up, I don't think we're in a position to continue."
Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard's communications director, in response to The Daily Republic about the upcoming trial said, "The governor hopes that the trial brings justice to the families who suffered a very tragic loss."
Spindler commends Attorney General Marty Jackley and his office, which is prosecuting the case. Spindler said Jackley's office has worked tirelessly on the case, including to keep him and Susan informed each step.
Blood draws, DUIs
There have been a few bumps in the state's case against Fischer. After the South Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 70, aka Criminal Justice Initiative, attorneys found a loophole in the new law and claimed the law made drunk driving legal.
Tim Whalen, Fischer's attorney, made that case in October 2013 that said no one can be convicted of driving under the influence, or DUI, under the new law. He made the motion to dismiss the two vehicular homicide charges and the first-offense DUI charge.
The DUI technicality dispute centered on a decades-old law that said it is not a crime to be drunk. That language is in South Dakota Codified Law 34-20A-93, which says, in part: " ... neither the state nor any county, municipality, charter unit of government, or other political subdivision may adopt or enforce a law, ordinance, resolution, or rule having the force of law that includes drinking, drunkenness, or being found in an intoxicated condition as one of the elements of the offense giving rise to a criminal or civil penalty or sanction."
Until 2012, another section of the law included exceptions allowing criminal charges for drunken driving and carrying firearms while drunk. That section was repealed; however, an entire chapter in the state code devoted to driving under the influence remains.
Still, Whalen claimed that without the one section that was repealed, there is no longer a legal basis for charging anyone with DUI.
About a month after the argument, Judge Bruce Anderson ruled against Whalen's claims and said drunken driving is illegal. Attorneys have attempted to exploit the supposed loophole, but to no avail.
The trial was originally scheduled for late July, just over a year after the crash. However, the case was put on hold until the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled on a case out of Sioux Falls regarding illegal blood draws in DUI cases. The case was brought to the state Supreme Court after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Missouri v. McNeely case that law enforcement must generally have a warrant for blood draw in any drunk driving case.
Fischer's blood was drawn twice by law enforcement for evidence -- once at the Wagner hospital and once at a Sioux Falls hospital. His blood was also drawn once by medical personnel at each location.
The state Supreme Court ruled in the Sioux Falls case that blood drawn from suspected drunken drivers without their permission or without a warrant is unconstitutional. Law enforcement did not have warrants to draw blood from Fischer, according to court documents.
In September, however, Judge Bruce Anderson ruled to allow blood evidence taken by law enforcement and medical personnel at the Wagner hospital.
In his decision, Anderson wrote, "This court has ruled that the law enforcement blood draw at the Wagner Community Hospital is constitutional due to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement."
Anderson added officers had enough cause to arrest Fischer or draw his blood, because they had reason to believe Fischer had consumed alcohol. The blood draws taken by medical personnel at Wagner were allowed because Fischer agreed to have his medical records released, which waived the doctor-patient privilege over the documents.
Medical documents state his blood alcohol level was a 0.274, higher than the preliminary draw showed of 0.232. Anderson decided to suppress the blood evidence taken by law enforcement in Sioux Falls, however, and the state withdrew its request for the medical blood draw in Sioux Falls.
Understanding it was preventable
Gregg and Susan Spindler hope Judge Anderson convicts Fischer of manslaughter, which is a more serious charge than vehicular homicide, and places Fischer in prison for decades.
"Maegan lost 60 years of probable life and Rob lost 40 years of probable life," Gregg Spindler said. "That's 100 years of life of two people dedicated to conserving life and society."
He added that a message needs to be sent to Charles Mix County and the state that there are consequences for anyone who causes harm when driving drunk.
The Spindlers also hope for considerable media attention.
"It's important for people to understand the horrors of what happened on July 8. It's important for people to understand it was entirely preventable and senseless," Gregg Spindler said.