Tanner Kruckeberg

Kruckeberg

MANTORVILLE — A Dodge Center man who is responsible for a crash that killed a Blooming Prairie elementary school teacher and her daughter last September will likely spend 30 days in jail each year for the next five years after he pleaded guilty to a single criminal vehicular homicide charge Thursday under a plea agreement reached with the prosecution.

In court documents filed Thursday, Tanner Kruckeberg, 25, pleaded guilty to one count of criminal vehicular homicide for operating his vehicle, a Hummer, in a “grossly negligent manner,” causing a crash that led to the death of Rachel Harberts and her 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, and the injury of Jaxon Harberts, 12. Kruckeberg was originally charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide, but the second count was dropped in exchange for his guilty plea.

Kruckeberg faced up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine for each count. But in addition to dropping one of the charges, prosecutors agreed to a prison sentence of 57 months (4 years and 9 months) with a stay of execution. He will be on probation for up to 10 years and will be required to spend 30 days in jail each year for up to five years, according to the documents filed this week. The time he will spend in jail will be on the anniversary of the incident.

Attorney Geoffrey Hjerleid, who prosecuted the case, said that Kruckeberg will also be required to participate in community education classes where he will tell his story about what happened in order to encourage people not to do what he did.

“That was important to probation and important to the victims’ family that something could come out of this,” Hjerleid said.

Kruckeberg’s attorney, Chris Ritts, declined to comment.

A date has not been set for formal sentencing, though Hjerleid said he anticipates it will occur sometime in mid-November.

Thursday’s guilty plea came just two days before the first anniversary of the crash that killed Rachel and Emerson Harberts. The crash occurred shortly after 7 a.m. Sept. 7, 2018, near the intersection of Highway 14 and Dodge County 3, just east of Claremont.

The Harberts, who lived in Dodge County, were on their way to school in Blooming Prairie — Rachel Harberts was a first-grade teacher, Jaxon a seventh grader and Emerson a third grader — when the crash occurred. According to the criminal complaint, Harberts’ car, a Mercury Milan, stopped on westbound Highway 14 in order to make a left turn when it was slammed into by Kruckeberg’s Hummer, which had its cruise control set at 60 mph, 5 mph higher than the speed limit at that section of the highway.

Kruckeberg told police at the time that he had been on his cellphone “speaking to a buddy” and, as the conversation came to an end, “looked down to manually hang up the phone” when the crash occurred, the complaint says.

But a subsequent search warrant of Kruckeberg’s phone showed he had been on the phone using an online banking application when the crash occurred.

Hjerleid said that in court on Thursday Kruckeberg acknowledged that he looked away from the road and at his phone while he was driving and that it was “not a momentary look.”

“In his statement, he said he looked away, and when he looked back up, he didn’t have time to stop,” said Hjerleid.

And, he said, Kruckeberg acknowledged that this was a case of distracted driving.

“Here was a young guy who doesn’t have a good driving record who did something that people have been doing for far too long,” Hjerleid said. “He’s very remorseful. It’s a tragedy for all involved.”

According to court records, last September’s incident was not the first time law enforcement officials have said that Kruckeberg had used his cellphone while driving. In February 2014, Kruckeberg was cited for “Using a Wireless Communication Devise … in Motion/Traffic” in Olmsted County.

On the traffic citation in that case, the reporting officer wrote that he “observed vehicle move from right to middle lane without signaling. Observed driver accessing data/texting while driving.”

And the officer said on the citation that the driver stated that he “was looking something up on the phone.”

Kruckeberg was convicted of a petty misdemeanor for that incident.

At the time of last September’s crash, Kruckeberg’s driving record showed convictions for 23 separate offenses in six separate counties since 2010, the year that he turned 16 and was eligible for a driver’s license. The vast majority of the tickets — 11 in all — were written in Dodge County with eight of the 23 citations for speeding, including his first three tickets, all written for speeding, all written in Dodge County, and all written within a year of his 16th birthday.

Among the other citations that Kruckeberg was given were four citations for driving with a suspended driver’s license and five citations for liquor consumption by a minor.

The state said alcohol was not involved in the September 2018 crash.

Since last September’s crash, he was charged with speeding — traveling 41 mph in a 30-mph zone — in Owatonna in July, and with operating an unlicensed motor craft and fishing without a license in Albert Lea in May.

Reach Managing Editor Jeffrey Jackson at 444-2371 or follow him on Twitter @OPPJeffrey.

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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