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Jury acquits Isabella man in fatal Cook County crash

Rodney Ernest was found not guilty of seven charges related to the death of William Evans.

Cook County Courthouse
The Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais.
Bob King / 2011 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A Cook County jury has acquitted an Isabella man of vehicular homicide charges after a November 2020 crash that killed his friend.

The verdict was handed down Tuesday night in the case of Rodney Arlen Ernest, 37, following a weeklong trial in State District Court in Grand Marais.

Prosecutors alleged that Ernest was impaired by alcohol when he crashed his pickup truck along a rural Cook County road, fleeing the scene and leaving behind his dead passenger, William Jay Evans, 55, of Litchfield, Minnesota.

But defense attorney Samuel Edmunds said his client had not shown signs of impairment and made the sensible decision to leave the secluded area, which lacked cellphone coverage, to go and seek help.

"He really feels vindicated," Edmunds said of Ernest. "This has obviously been a huge event for his family and for him personally. ... Bill Evans was a good friend of Rodney's for many years; they were good buddies. It's a sad, sad story."

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Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken also addressed the verdict in a statement to the News Tribune.

"While we sought a different result in the interests of justice and on behalf of the victim's memory, the state of Minnesota made a thorough presentation of the evidence and performed a professional level of advocacy," Hicken said. "This defendant received a fair trial. Every criminal case, if unresolved, winds up in the hands of a jury to decide. Our justice systems asks that we trust their verdict as the final outcome."

Ernest's abandoned Ford pickup was found on 600 Road, west of the Sawbill Trail, in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 2020. Evans was pronounced dead at the scene.

Rodney Ernest admitted to having several drinks and fleeing deputies before crashing and killing his friend, according to a criminal complaint.

A criminal complaint filed days after the incident alleged that Ernest had eluded a Lake County deputy who attempted to stop him shortly after 1 a.m. that morning, reporting that the vehicle was "driving all over the road."

The crashed truck and deceased passenger were first reported around 6 a.m. by a motorist passing through the area. The truck had rolled over into a ditch, and Evans was found outside on the ground with obvious head trauma.

Investigators concluded that the driver had lost control while navigating a left-hand corner, over-correcting several times before going airborne off the right side of the roadway and crashing to the ground, rolling and striking a tree.

Ernest, interviewed at his home by a Cook County deputy that morning, stated he was driving home when he thought a tire blew out and he crashed. He said he had to look around for Evans, eventually finding him and realizing he would not be able to revive his friend.

Edmunds told the News Tribune that subsequent examination revealed the tire had not blown out.

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"We don't know what that sensation was that Rodney felt out on the road," the defense attorney said. "There was some mention during the trial that it could have been a broken tie rod or it could've been some debris on the road; maybe he hit a rock or animal. We just don't know what it was, but from Rodney's perspective there was some sort of clunk and that started this series of events where he lost control and the truck rolled."

Authorities said in the complaint that Ernest admitted having two beers at a friend's house in Schroeder before having a "couple" more drinks at Silver Bay Municipal Liquor and Lounge. A deputy also reported that he believed Ernest to be impaired during the interviewing, citing bloodshot and watery eyes.

Edmunds acknowledged Ernest had a few drinks earlier in the evening, but he said several witnesses, including a bartender, testified that the defendant appeared to be sober both before and after the crash. He said a blood sample also came back clear, though it was taken hours after the fact.

The defense attorney said the crash occurred "in the middle of nowhere," where it can be hours before another car passes.

"He was miles away from other human beings," Edmunds said. "There was nobody to talk to, nowhere to go. So he made the right decision to start walking. He walked for 6 or 8 miles before a random guy out hunting early in the morning happened by and was able to give him a ride into town, and then they reported this to the authorities right away."

It took the 12-member jury about two hours to deliberate. The panel found Ernest not guilty under four separate theories of criminal vehicular homicide: operating with negligence under the influence of alcohol, operating in a grossly negligent manner, leaving the scene after causing a collision and failing to notify police of an injury or death.

The jury also found Ernest not guilty of three traffic offenses: careless driving, failing to stop for a collision and failing to notify police after a collision.

Ernest, a married father of two, has never been convicted of any felony or impaired driving offense. Edmunds said the verdict is a relief, as it not only spares Ernest a potential prison term but also allows him to continue providing for his family as a truck driver in the family logging business.

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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