Aug. 30—DICKINSON — A Dickinson woman has been sentenced for her direct involvement in a fatal drunk driving crash that claimed the life of a 22-year-old Dickinson man last July.
Morgan Dale LaRoche, 27, of Dickinson entered a
plea of guilty
in May after she struck and killed her friend
in July of 2021.
The sentencing was held at the Southwest District Court with Judge Rhonda R. Ehlis presiding. LaRoche was sentenced on Monday to 10 years in prison, with five years suspended.
faced a class A felony charge of criminal vehicular homicide carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, agreed in exchange for her change of plea for the charges to be reduced to manslaughter.
The agreement reached between LaRoche's legal team and Stark County State's Attorney Amanda Engelstad reduced the charge to a class B felony carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
During the sentencing hearing, ND Highway Patrol Officer Jed Reile, the leading on-scene investigator, said the victim was known to have a tendency of leaving a group of drinking buddies and walking home alone once he decided he'd had enough. According to Reile, at around midnight on the night of the fatal crash Schmidt left a bar where he was in the company of LaRoche and another male to purportedly buy a pack of cigarettes.
LaRoche testified that she and the other individual unsuccessfully attempted to contact Schmidt, was concerned for his safety and wanted to find him when she left the bar.
"I was concerned about Aaron being alone," LaRoche said at her sentencing on Monday.
LaRoche was captured on camera at multiple Dickinson establishments in the downtown Dickinson area on the night of the crash. Video footage from the establishments confirmed she was consuming alcohol.
Traffic camera footage obtained by The Dickinson Press showed Schmidt jaywalking across multiple streets, until 12:23 a.m. when he is seen nearing the intersection of Villard Street and 3rd Avenue West. In the video footage, Schmidt is seen walking southward across Villard toward Hardee's approximately 40 feet east of the intersection. In the video he is nearly struck by a fast moving Ford Explorer, but the driver slowed down and allowed him to pass. Schmidt would not be so fortunate crossing another roadway seven minutes later, as evidenced by the fatal video footage shown at the sentencing.
According to Reile, an investigation and crash reconstruction determined that LaRoche was driving between 34-37 miles per hour, above the posted speed limit of 25 mph, at the time of the fatal crash. After turning the corner of West Broadway Street onto Highway 22 in the direction of Dan's Body Shop, LaRoche is captured on camera striking a curb with her vehicle which was shown to be weaving in her lane of traffic. Shortly thereafter the video showed LaRoche strike a seemingly unaware Schmidt with her 2020 black Chevy Equinox.
Reile explained there was an "extremely large" debris field with pieces of the car, mostly the front fender, scattered for more than half a city block. Reile testified that upon opening the door of the squad car in which LaRoche was being held, he noticed a very strong odor of alcohol on her breath.
"I told her who I was, who I worked for and that I would be doing the crash investigation. She told me that, 'it wasn't a crash, but okay.' I asked her about the damage to her vehicle, to which she replied, 'Woman driver, no survivor,'" he testified. "Based on the statements she was making, her overall demeanor and appearance, it was obvious to me that she was intoxicated and either didn't understand the circumstances of the situation or just didn't care."
LaRoche was transported to CHI St. Alexius Hospital in Dickinson approximately 3.5 hours after the incident for a blood test to gauge the level of alcohol content in her system. The test found a BAC of 0.162, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
Reile testified that LaRoche began acting as if he was going to shoot or harm her, refusing to move with her back to him and walking backwards into the hospital entrance.
Court documents confirmed that at the time of the crash, LaRoche was taking a prescribed psychiatric medication that explicitly advised that it not be consumed with alcohol.
Kimberly Grote is a manager at the Hawthorne Inn & Suites in Dickinson, who supervised LaRoche during the six months she worked there in 2021, testified on LaRoche's behalf. Grote praised the defendant as a hardworking and reliable person, noting that she also empathized with arguments about visibility conditions and the difficulty of even sober drivers to notice pedestrians walking across the road in that area of town.
"...Some teenagers ran across in front of me. I literally had to pull over and I cried because all I could think about was Morgan, and how that could've been me," Grote said.
Engelstad in cross-examination asked Grote if she had been drinking alcohol prior the incident she described and if she had struck any of the teenagers. Grote responded no to both questions.
During testimony LaRoche, who has two children aged 3 and 7, argued that a prison sentence would cause undue hardship on both her children's lives. Further, she testified that she was currently five months pregnant and recently married.
"I have to admit Miss Laroche, the timing is suspect," Ehlis said before issuing the sentence. "I don't know why you would decide to put yourself in a position in which you become pregnant before potential incarceration, and that you marry someone who you've had an on and off relationship with for seven years."
The victim's mother, Kristen Schmidt, wrote a victim impact statement which was read by a victim advocate as she was too overwhelmed with emotion to read it herself.
Schmidt said LaRoche should've been responsible and walked that night like her son chose to do.
"I will never forget that you killed my son. I don't know if I will ever forgive you. I feel you need more than three to five years, but whatever you get won't feel like enough. I love my son and I miss him," her statement read.
When asked if she had anything else to say, LaRoche responded with a tearful remorse.
"I'd just like to apologize to everyone in this situation and understand forgiveness is entirely optional. I do apologize for what I've done. That's all," she said.
In her closing arguments Engelstad pointed out that LaRoche frequented several bars on the evening of the fatal crash. She argued that at one point, LaRoche can be seen consuming three alcoholic beverages over a very short period of time and pointed the court's attention to the crash report that stated the weather conditions were clear and calm.
"The testimony from the officers was that she was extremely intoxicated. She didn't show any remorse. She didn't ask about the victim at all, which was quite different from her passenger, who was beside himself and hysterical — obviously showing hurt emotion," she said. "She appeared to be more concerned about herself."
She then recommended to Judge Ehlis that LaRoche be incarcerated at the North Dakota Department of Corrections for a period of 10 years, with five suspended, followed by three years of supervised probation and mandatory attendance of a victim impact panel within 90 days of release.
LaRoche's attorney asked that the hardship a prison sentence would impose on Laroche's children be considered and requested a lighter sentence of approximately two years of home confinement — arguing that home confinement would still be difficult for her.
Before announcing her final decision, Ehlis thoroughly explained the 14 point sentencing guideline for the crime. She said she did not perceive LaRoche to be a bad person, that she's done well with the 24/7 monitoring program and that she did not intend to harm her friend. Yet, Ehlis expressed concern that the PSI conducted in May found that she was still exhibiting compulsive behaviors beyond her control.
"That tells me you're still struggling to act within the law or you're exhibiting behaviors that you regret later," she said.
Ehlis added that she empathized with the struggles LaRoche and her half-sister endured as children, abandoned by their mother as teens, but noted that adversity does not excuse crime.
"No child should have to live through that," she said. "But... you cannot simply behave as you want, saying, 'Oh I had a hard life.' You don't get that luxury in society. We are still required to follow the rules, no matter how hard life is."
Ehlis issued the sentence recommended by the prosecution, acknowledging that prison will cause substantial hardship for LaRoche and her family, but said they would not be undue hardships.
"This is why we think about these things before we drink and drive," Ehlis said.
LaRoche was ordered to pay court costs of about $825, sign a no-contact order prohibiting any attempts to communicate with Kristen Schmidt and immediately remanded to the custody of the Stark County Sheriff's Department, for eventual transportation to the Dakota Women's Correctional Center in New England, N.D.
After the proceedings were over Engelstad said that although she was glad to see justice served and some level of closure for the victim's family after a hard and lengthy 13 month process, it was still a very sad day for everyone involved.
"There's just no winners in a DUI fatality...I think everyone who has a driver's license and even those that don't are probably very well versed and knowledgeable on the dangers of drunk driving," Engelstad lamented. "...It was 100% preventable."