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Iron Range man gets jail time, probation for fatal crash

A judge stayed a four-year prison term for Michael Miller, who also suffered significant injuries in the crash that killed Joni Dahl.

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VIRGINIA — An Iron Range man will avoid prison if he complies with seven years of supervised probation for an alcohol-fueled crash that killed a local business leader in August.

Judge Robert Friday ordered Michael Kenneth Miller, 40, of rural Virginia, to serve a year in the St. Louis County Jail or Northeastern Regional Corrections Center for the death of Joni Dahl, 39, of rural Gilbert.

Michael Kenneth Miller.jpg
Michael Kenneth Miller

Friday granted a defense motion for a departure from sentencing guidelines, staying the presumptive, four-year prison term in favor of a longer probationary period that includes the local jail time.

Miller, who was free on bond after spending 31 days in custody, was taken into custody at the conclusion of Monday's hearing to immediately begin serving the one-year term. He will be required to serve an additional four weeks in custody in annual, one-week increments around each anniversary of the crash.

The departure was requested by defense attorney Carver Richards, while St. Louis County prosecutor Aaron Welch sought the guideline prison term.

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Conditions of probation require that Miller remain law-abiding; abstain from alcohol and drugs; submit to random testing; comply with ignition interlock requirements; and pay more than $8,000 in restitution. Violations could result in the prison term being executed.

Miller pleaded guilty to a felony count of vehicular homicide Oct. 13, just two months after he struck Dahl's oncoming car along County Highway 21 in rural Embarrass on his 40th birthday.

The collision occurred at approximately 11:30 p.m. Aug. 12 just west of the intersection with Minnesota Highway 135. Authorities later determined his blood-alcohol concentration was more than twice the legal limit for driving.

A criminal complaint stated that officers found Dahl dead in a Ford Fusion that had gone into the ditch. Miller, who was driving a Chevrolet Silverado, was walking with a limp.

Investigators said they determined that Miller was traveling west when his truck went across the center line, striking Dahl's eastbound car behind the front driver's side wheel, "crushing her and causing severe trauma to the front left side of her head."

The complaint said Miller had watery eyes, slurred speech and an odor of alcohol. He reportedly said he was on his way home from a bar, where he was drinking "vodka cranberries."

A member of the Embarrass Fire Department told a deputy that he had seen Miller at another area bar around 2 p.m. that day, the complaint noted.

A preliminary breath test placed Miller's blood-alcohol level at 0.247, well in excess of the 0.08 limit for driving. A blood draw taken later at a Duluth hospital placed his level at 0.195, according to an amended complaint filed last month.

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Patrick Bullard reportedly drank Fireball while transporting YMCA campers age 11-14.

Miller was treated for injuries at a Duluth hospital — with a defense attorney telling the court that he was "severely disabled as a result of the accident" — before he was booked into the St. Louis County Jail.

Dahl worked as materials manager at Iracore International in Hibbing; was a former board chair of the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce; served on the Gilbert Planning and Zoning Commission; and was a board member of the Iron Range Racing Association.

The victim's father, John Dahl, and longtime partner, Matt Lenci, both provided statements to the court Monday, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office indicated.

"Words often used to describe Joni include generous, thoughtful, bighearted, strong-willed, smart, tough, outspoken, bold, accomplished, fun-loving, confident, spirited and athletic," her obituary stated.

Miller did not have any apparent criminal history, and the defense submitted letters of support from five community members ahead of sentencing.

Marsha Blake, a 15-year friend and hospital worker who saw Miller shortly after the crash, told the court that the defendant has long experienced health and personal challenges and that he "would never intentionally harm anyone."

"I witnessed a man that was truly remorseful," she wrote. "He was punishing himself from the moment it happened. He cared nothing about his own injuries. He was only focused on his deep regret for what he had done."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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