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Farmer's crop damaged in high-speed chase

Track marks through Duane Bessler's field show the path of a high-speed chase this past summer that ripped out two fences and caused $2,200 worth of damage. Submitted Photo

When a line of squad cars roared 20 feet outside of Duane and Kristi Bessler's bedroom window at 2:30 a.m. last summer, the rural Lake George couple was jolted out of bed.

Duane grabbed his gun, loaded it and herded his family into the master bedroom.

The parade of vehicles whizzed through a narrow driveway that was flanked on either side by farm equipment, trucks and a front-end loader, and headed into Bessler's alfalfa, clover and wheat field.

"At the time they knocked 'er down pretty good," Bessler said of his crops. "They made several trips out across the field; plus they chased them around on the field. And then they went through two fences."

Bessler and his family watched as a K-9 unit came in and more cars, lights flashing and sirens going off, went by his bedroom window.

"So you hear all this and you think, 'If they're chasing like this it's pretty serious,'" he recalled thinking.

A stolen pickup was being pursued by White Earth police and perhaps as many as three counties' deputies, including Hubbard.

The chase began somewhere in Mahnomen County and reached speeds of 105 mph, through Lake George, ending in Duane Bessler's field when the stolen truck finally struck a tree.

But the Besslers had no way of knowing that's what the chase was about. All they knew at the time was that they were scared out of their wits.

"You know, nobody came to the door to ask permission or to tell us what was going on," Duane said.

The family huddled behind the bedroom door, envisioning the worst. Was a murderer loose?

"You know, your mind just goes" to the worst possible scenarios, Bessler said, admitting that TV crime shows probably don't help when you're faced with a similar situation.

"We just had no idea what was going on out there," Kristi Bessler recalled.

When daylight dawned on June 26, the damage to his 50-acre field was visible. Deep ruts marred Bessler's growing crops. Now he's wondering who will pay for the estimated $2,200 in damage.

The passenger in the stolen truck, Roy Lee Hardin, 53, of Minneapolis, surrendered after the crash. He was not charged in the incident. Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne said there was no evidence he knew the truck was stolen. Hardin was not the driver, so he couldn't be charged in the chase or for the damage to Bessler's fields.

The driver of the truck, 49-year-old David Michael Lee, was apprehended after Hubbard County K-9 Vulcan chased him into the woods.

Both men have extensive criminal backgrounds: Lee in nine counties, Hardin in two. The truck had been stolen from a Fargo dealership earlier in 2009.

Court proceedings

Lee was jailed in Clearwater County, where he was charged with felony fleeing in a motor vehicle and refusal to take an alcohol test.

Hubbard County filed similar charges of fleeing and criminal damage to Bessler's property.

While still in custody, the counties worked out a joint plan to get the Besslers reimbursed.

Dearstyne reasoned that even if Lee was convicted in both counties, he would have received concurrent jail terms, so he agreed, if Lee pleaded to the Clearwater charges, to dismiss the Hubbard charges on the condition that Lee reimburse the Besslers up front for the damage.

At some point, Judge Paul Rasmussen, who serves both counties, released Lee on his own recognizance for the charges in both counties.

Lee balked at the plea deal and failed to show up for omnibus hearings in either county earlier this fall. Rasmussen then signed warrants for Lee's arrest. He is now charged with failure to appear, in addition to the fleeing and other charges, and is wanted by both counties. His current address is unknown.

Dearstyne meanwhile advised the Besslers to turn to the Crime Victims Reparations Board. Duane said he filled out the paperwork and is waiting to hear if someone will pay for his lost crops.

"I think crop insurance pays for hail, but probably not for criminal damage," Dearstyne said, adding that the case has been frustrating for both authorities and the victims.

How to decide?

The case highlights the controversial nature of police pursuits.

Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer said in June his deputies were called for assistance by one of the other pursuing agencies.

He said the department's seven-page pursuit policy, in deciding whether to pursue a vehicle, takes into consideration the seriousness of the crime committed, the risk to public safety and whether the suspects are known and could be apprehended later.

"If the conditions of the pursuit become too risky for safe continuation, that's probably the key right there," he said.

A supervisor must be notified if local deputies are involved in a chase and can terminate the pursuit if they feel the risk is too great.

At 2:30 a.m. in a remote part of the county, there is little risk to other motorists.

Homer said when Hubbard County relies on other agencies to assist in high-speed pursuits, local deputies have somewhat of an obligation to assist those agencies when the need arises.

Hubbard joined the chase about 2 a.m. when it crossed into the county from Highway 200, he said in June.

It continued to U.S. Highway 71, past the Bessler farm.

Duane Bessler believes it ended in his field when officers east of his farm placed "stop sticks," the spiked strips that puncture tires, just beyond his farm at the junction of county roads 91 and 92 to head off the stolen vehicle.

Instead, the pickup veered through his farmyard. The strips also were placed between his barn and an electrical pole to prevent the stolen pickup from leaving his field.

Reimbursement for damage caused by pursuing vehicles is "an insurance issue," Homer said. "If we are at fault, you bet. Insurance kicks in. If the individual we're chasing is at fault, their insurance kicks in so it turns into who's liable for what took place."

The Besslers were told Lee is likely indigent and couldn't make restitution.

"I filed the claim anyway," Duane said.

But as the chase ended on the far side of his field that morning, he did get a chuckle out of its end.

At least three of the deputies forgot the stop sticks were laced across Bessler's driveway and drove over them on the way out of the field. Three wreckers had to be brought in to tow out the casualties.