Charges to be dropped for driver who drove into protest on 35W

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The Otsego truck driver who drove into a massive protest on the Interstate 35W bridge last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder will see the two criminal charges against him dropped if he remains law-abiding for the next year.

Bogdan Vechirko, 36, entered into what is called a "continuance without prosecution" agreement with Hennepin County prosecutors before District Judge William Koch on Friday.

Vechirko appeared via an online court session that lasted about 20 minutes. The arrangement is not a plea bargain, and he didn't speak beyond saying "yes, sir" to Koch's questions about the process. Vechirko wore a suitcoat and dress shirt as he sat behind attorney Kevin DeVore.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman didn't charge Vechirko in the incident until October, months after it transpired. In charging him with threats of violence, a felony, and criminal vehicular operation, a gross misdemeanor, the prosecutor said Vechirko had admitted to investigators that he was "kind of in a hurry." Freeman also said the investigation found the trucker sought to "scare" protesters out of his path.

The incident was especially unsettling because it came amid days and nights of upheaval in the Twin Cities after Floyd's murder by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Like Floyd's killing, the incident on the bridge was captured on surveillance cameras.

Vechirko was seen driving his big rig onto the bridge as hundreds of pedestrians protested the death of Floyd. Vechirko said at the time that he was returning from a fuel delivery in south Minneapolis and didn't intend to drive into the protest or hurt anyone.

But the criminal complaint said investigators reviewed cellphone videos showing that Vechirko should have known something was occurring on the bridge because of the large crowd and vehicles stopped on I-35W northbound on the road leading to the bridge.

The agreement approved Friday requires Vechirko to remain law-abiding for a year, pay restitution and attend three sentencing circles, a restorative justice process focused on victims' concerns. He already has attended two. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Daniel Allard said Vechirko must pay restitution, but he could not provide an amount to the court Friday.

While Vechirko didn't address the court during the brief hearing, one protester who was on the bridge that day was allowed to provide a statement.

Bennett Hartz, of Minneapolis, described the ongoing trauma he experiences from the event, saying he still has nightmares and "I jump out of my skin" at the sound of fireworks or a car backfiring. Hartz called it a "miracle" that no one was killed that day.

Koch acknowledged that, saying, "I don't think anybody looking at that would have taken any bet that no one would be seriously injured."

At the time Vechirko was charged, attorney Mark Solheim said the driver was faced with a terrifying situation and did what he could to avoid injuring anyone.

Solheim said Vechirko saw the crowd on the bridge and "relied on his professional instinct and training to avoid a hard brake that could have jackknifed the truck and could have seriously injured or killed thousands of people, and instead slowed his vehicle while maneuvering through the parted crowd."

Minnesota Department of Transportation video later showed that Vechirko had entered Interstate 94 from the Hennepin/Lyndale ramp, which was not barricaded.

The criminal complaint said "at least" one protester suffered abrasions as she jumped out of the truck's path.

None of the protesters who attacked and injured Vechirko was charged. Vechirko suffered cuts to his face, and his wife told the Star Tribune that his cellphone, wallet and other items in the truck's cab were stolen.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson

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