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Faith Mitzel of Oberon talks about the fatal accident she was involved in on May 19 along a stretch of Highway 57 near Fort Totten. She says witnesses can testify that she was not at fault. Sarah Kolberg/ Forum Communications

Woman fined $20 in fatal North Dakota crash speaks out

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Woman fined $20 in fatal North Dakota crash speaks out
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

OBERON, N.D. - A 92-year-old woman who is fighting a traffic citation in a fatal motorcycle accident in May is contesting the charge that she crossed the center line of the road.

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Faith Mitzel, who lives in rural Oberon, said witnesses can testify that she was not at fault in the accident, which occurred at about dusk on May 19 along a stretch of state Highway 57 in a road construction zone near Fort Totten.

She was traveling south near the entrance to Sullys Hill National Game Preserve after just leaving the Spirit Lake Casino, where she had played bingo that evening.

Mitzel said a trucker following her told authorities that northbound motorcycles were traveling in both the north- and southbound lanes of Highway 57 just before the accident occurred.

"Bikers were lights all across the road," she said.

"I was driving slow because it was all dug up for construction," she said, "and there was a car behind me and a truck. The girl behind me was going to pass me, but she didn't because of the bright lights, so she pulled back."

An administrative hearing is scheduled Monday in Benson County District Court in Minnewaukan.

According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, Mitzel's 2000 Oldsmobile crossed the center line, struck a 1980 Harley-Davidson driven by Jason Hunter, 33, then continued south and hit a 2006 Harley-Davidson, carrying driver James Leidholt, 37, and his passenger, Sheri Leidholt, 30. Hunter and the Leidholts, who were traveling together, are from Devils Lake.

Sheri Leidholt was pronounced dead at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo the morning after the accident. Hunter had a foot amputated in early June, according to his CaringBridge website.

The Highway Patrol and the Benson County state's attorney's office decided to charge Mitzel with crossing the center line of the road without overtaking another vehicle. State's Attorney James Wang did not immediately respond to a request to discuss the case.

Mitzel said she initially paid the $20 fine. But after what she called inaccurate stories in newspapers and on radio and television, she hired a Jamestown attorney to represent her.

The case has been a hot topic on talk radio throughout the Red River Valley. Topics have included whether a $20 fine is appropriate in a fatal accident, whether elderly drivers should be removed from the road, and whether she has any business fighting the charge.

"Some people want to take away my license," she said. "I can drive. The last time I got my eyes checked, the doctor said there's nothing wrong with my eyes."

She claims the accident report is inaccurate, and that police should have more thoroughly investigated the actions of the motorcyclists.

She also said her vehicle was towed from the scene and that she has not been able to find out where it is. She was told that an insurance claim of $2,400 to $2,700 has been issued, but that she has not seen it.

"There are so many unanswered questions," she said.

"The ugly part is that people have been saying things about her," said Loretta Stensland, an Oberon woman and a friend who often accompanies Mitzel on her trips to the casino, or to Devils Lake. "They act like she doesn't have any business being alive. It was an accident, and you can't change that."

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Pioneer staff reports
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