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Driver pleads guilty in fatal Solway Township crash

Austin Hilden

A Solway Township man admitted Thursday that he was highly intoxicated when he crashed his car early Memorial Day morning, killing one friend and injuring three others.

Austin Darrell Hilden, 19, pleaded guilty to felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation at a hearing in State District Court in Duluth.

The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said Hilden crashed and rolled his vehicle into a ditch near the intersection of Canosia and Arrowhead roads in Solway Township just before 4 a.m. on May 29. The wreck killed 19-year-old Axton Dylan Whitfield and injured three other passengers.

Hilden allegedly told deputies that he drank four or five bottles of beer at a party in the Cotton area and was feeling the effects of alcohol when he fell asleep at the wheel.

Hilden faces a presumptive prison sentence, though a plea agreement with the St. Louis County Attorney's Office allows him to seek probation. Sixth Judicial District Judge Dale Harris scheduled sentencing for Feb. 8.

Authorities said they found Hilden's car upside down in a ditch. Whitfield was found about 10 yards away and pronounced dead.

Also injured were 20-year-old Colin Ganem, who suffered multiple fractured vertebrae and required major surgery; 20-year-old Dallas Vrooman, who had a large laceration to his face; and 19-year-old Terrance Wenzel, who suffered a shoulder injury.

Hilden on Thursday calmly answered a series of questions from prosecutor Nate Stumme, confirming details outlined in a criminal complaint charging him with the crimes in July. Under the agreement, the prosecution dismissed two additional vehicular operation charges.

The defendant admitted that he consumed alcohol before driving and said he had no reason to dispute a test that placed his blood-alcohol concentration at .147, nearly twice the state's legal limit of .08.

Hilden acknowledged that he was falling asleep at the time of the crash, and that his intoxication was the sole factor.

"Mr. Whitfield passed away because of your actions?" Stumme asked.

"Yes," Hilden replied.

Whitfield, of Proctor, was attending the Adult Learning Center and had dreams of being a video-game designer, according to his obituary, which described him as "extremely smart and a gifted athlete excelling in basketball."

The obituary said Whitfield was survived by his mother, stepfather and eight siblings. His father, Astor Whitfield III, was killed in a car crash near Superior in 2003.