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Ronald Fischer convicted on two counts of vehicular homicide

Ronald Fischer is escorted into the Charles Mix County Courthouse during the September trial in Lake Andes. (Anna Jauhola/Republic)

LAKE ANDES — A Charles Mix County judge found Ronald Fischer to be negligent, rather than reckless, when he drove drunk in July 2013 and killed two federal employees in Pickstown in 2013.

Fischer, 30, faced a court trial in late September through early October. Judge Bruce Anderson convicted Fischer of two counts of vehicular homicide, a felony, each carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and a $30,000 fine. Anderson’s ruling was released Thursday by the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office.

Fischer’s convictions stem from a crash on July 8, 2013, where Fischer failed to stop at a stop sign at the intersection of U.S. Highway 18 and S.D. Highway 46. His vehicle then directly entered a parking lot going at least 52 mph and struck Maegan Spindler, 25, and Robert Klumb, 46, who were U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees working in the Pickstown area.

“Ronald Fischer’s decision to drive while under the influence of alcohol was a senseless act that has caused a tremendous loss for two families,” said Attorney General Marty Jackley. “We are pleased with the court’s decision and our thoughts remain with the Klumb and Spindler families.”

Anderson also convicted Fischer of one count drunken driving, one count of possession of marijuana and one count of ingesting non-alcoholic substance to become intoxicated, all misdemeanors.

Fischer chose early on in his case to waive his right to a jury trial and rather chose a court trial, which means the judge has sole discretion to decide guilt or innocence. Following the trial in October, Anderson estimated he would take approximately 90 days to enter his decision after attorneys filed final briefs, which were entered in November.

Anderson found Fischer not guilty on two charges of first-degree manslaughter and two charges of second-degree manslaughter, all of which are felonies.

“The Spindler family welcomes the conviction of Ronald Ray Fischer Jr. for vehicular homicide in the death of our daughter 19 months ago,” Gregg Spindler, Maegan’s father, wrote in a statement. “However, we are very disappointed that he was not convicted of the most serious charge of first-degree manslaughter. We will have to read Judge Anderson’s findings of fact to understand his reasoning in this decision. We felt the prosecutors had a solid case and there is ample precedence for first-degree manslaughter, which does not require showing intent.”

When contacted by The Daily Republic on Thursday, the Klumb family chose not to comment on Anderson’s decision.

Anderson wrote in his decision that Fischer was negligent, rather than reckless, because Fischer didn’t drive his vehicle with “conscious disregard of a substantial risk.”

“The reckless actor is aware of the risk and disregards it; the negligent actor is not aware of the risk, but should have been aware of it,” Anderson quoted in his definitions of reckless and negligent. He explains Fischer suffered a head injury in the crash, which likely affected his mental state following the crash. Anderson concluded this injury coupled with a likely possibility that Fischer passed out or was unconscious for a time before or while he was driving due to excessive alcohol in his system caused him to be negligent -- or not aware of the risk -- rather than reckless. Fischer’s blood alcohol content, according to court documents, was 0.232. The state legal driving limit is 0.08.

Therefore, Anderson convicted Fischer of vehicular homicide. The state proved, beyond a doubt, to Anderson that Fischer did the following:

operated or drove a vehicle in a negligent manner;

Fischer was under the influence of alcohol;

the negligent operation resulted in the victims’ deaths; and

Fischer did so without an intent to cause the deaths.

Anderson wrote in his decision that the state did not prove Fischer “used his automobile in a manner that is likely or probable to inflict death or serious bodily harm,” which is an element needed to prove a defendant is guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Anderson found him not guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Since the court earlier ruled Fischer could not be found guilty of multiple homicide charges, Anderson acquitted Fischer of second-degree manslaughter, according to the ruling.

Anderson found Fischer guilty of the misdemeanor charges -- driving under the influence of alcohol, possession of marijuana and ingestion of a controlled substance. He had marijuana in his system at the time of the crash, according to court documents.

“In this case, the court finds there is overwhelming evidence as to the defendant’s guilt” for these charges, Anderson wrote.

Sentencing is scheduled for March at the Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes.

The investigation was conducted by the Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office, South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Division of Criminal Investigation and prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office.