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Midway Township man charged in Duluth woman's crash death

The 18-year-old was allegedly driving at nearly twice the speed limit in a heavy fog.

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DULUTH — A Midway Township man was traveling more than 70 mph in "extremely foggy" conditions when he T-boned another car, killing its driver and seriously injuring a passenger, according to a criminal complaint filed this week.

Jesse James Kowalczak, 18, has been summoned to appear in State District Court in Duluth on Jan. 9 to face felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation in the May 13 crash that killed Leah Joy Sarko, 48, and hospitalized her 11-year-old son.

The complaint states that Sarko's Subaru Forester was turning left from Ugstad Junction Road onto northbound Ugstad Road when Kowalczak's southbound Saturn plowed directly into the driver's side of the SUV.

Leah Joy Sarko
Leah Joy Sarko

"It is likely that she could not see the defendant's car speeding toward her through the fog until it was too late," authorities wrote. "The collision was so severe that it caused the Subaru to flip over on its side at least once, if not more, and landed 200 feet south of the point of impact."

An accident reconstruction later concluded that Kowalczak was traveling between 72-89 mph in the 40 mph zone, according to the complaint. Visibility was reported to be so low at the time that responding deputies had to drive below the speed limit in order to reach the crash scene, where Sarko was pronounced dead.

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Sarko, a lifelong Duluth resident and 16-year employee of Lakewalk Surgery Center, was a "beautiful, kind, caring and loving soul," according to her obituary.

"Her last act was casting her momma bubble over her son to save him during the accident," the family wrote.

According to the complaint:

The first motorist to come upon the crash scene called 911 shortly before 9 a.m. to report that the Subaru was flipped over on its passenger side in the middle of Ugstad Road, while a man was trapped in the Saturn in the ditch.

First responders began arriving approximately 10 minutes later, but Sarko was already dead from multiple blunt force injuries. Her son, Evan, was able to get out of the vehicle and was taken to a local hospital with a concussion and multiple broken bones.

Proctor fatal crash.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Kowalczak had to be extracted from his car and investigators were not able to take a statement from him due to his unspecified injuries. A blood draw was taken several hours later at the hospital; it revealed the presence of controlled substances in his system, but investigators indicated that could have been a result of medical treatment.

An Ugstad Road resident told investigators that she heard a vehicle driving at a high rate of speed, looking out her window in time to see it “fly” by, hearing a crash. She said she did not hear any horns or screeches prior to the collision.

Sgt. Josh Berndt of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office said it was difficult to even reach the crash scene safely, having to slow down because other motorists couldn’t see his emergency lights through the heavy fog.

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Citing “extreme fog” and “extreme speed,” Minnesota State Patrol accident reconstructionist Eric Fischer concluded in his report that Kowalczak’s driving conduct was “grossly negligent.”

A check of Minnesota court records shows one prior speeding ticket on Kowalczak’s record. Under state sentencing guidelines, he could face a presumptive prison term of four years if convicted of vehicular homicide.

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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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