No investigation in claim deputy told to omit Pokemon Go from fatal accident report
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- There will be no investigation into a Pennington County sheriff's deputy's claim police told him to exclude the fact that "Pokemon Go" was open on the phone of a teenage bicyclist hit and killed by a truck in Thief Riv...
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- There will be no investigation into a Pennington County sheriff’s deputy’s claim police told him to exclude the fact that “Pokemon Go” was open on the phone of a teenage bicyclist hit and killed by a truck in Thief River Falls.
The events leading up to Deputy Brady Meunier leaving the information out of his report on the crash that killed 14-year-old Gannon Allen Hejlik was a misunderstanding, Thief River Falls Police Chief Dick Wittenberg said in a news release. Pennington County Attorney Alan Rogalla and Sheriff Ray Kuznia agreed, with both saying Tuesday they didn’t plan to investigate the matter any further.
“Both of these officers (Wittenberg and Meunier) are good men,” Rogalla wrote in an email.
Investigators found “Pokemon Go,” a popular video game phone app, open on Hejlik’s phone at the scene of the crash after he was hit by a 1998 Dodge Ram July 18 at Oakland Park Road and Greenwood Street. The crash killed Hejlik, but a grand jury determined there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the driver, Tammy Martha Johnson, of Thief River Falls.
Forty pages of crash reports highlighted witness statements and analyzed phone data from Hejlik’s and Johnson’s cellphones. Police determined Johnson was not using her phone at the time of the crash. Johnson told police she was watching the road as she drove, stating Hejlik “came out of nowhere.”
Witnesses could not state with certainty if Hejlik was using “Pokemon Go” when he was hit by the truck, though the reports indicate he played the game often. He received several app alerts before and during the crash, but investigators said in the report it doesn’t appear he responded to the messages.
Misunderstanding Meunier amended his report Oct. 18 after he told Rogalla he left the fact that the app was open on Hejlik’s phone out of his report because police told him to do so.
"I was told by either Police Chief Dick Wittenberg or Sgt. Doug Williams that they did not want me to include it in my report as they did not want national news here on the case," Meunier wrote in the report. "I told Rogalla that I believe it was Chief Wittenberg, but I cannot say with 100 percent certainty."
Meunier, who was new to the department, said he thought leaving the information out of the report could ruin his career, but he did so because the advice came from a well-respected officer.
Wittenberg previously told the Herald he told his officers not to spread rumors about the case if they didn’t know the facts, but he said he did not tell Meunier to leave anything out of his report, nor did he think anyone else with his office did that.
In his news release last week, he said all parties investigated the crash thoroughly, though he became concerned confidential information from police reports was being released to the public before the reports were considered open record.
Under Minnesota law, a crash report that is part of a criminal investigation is not made public until the criminal case is considered closed.
The Thief River Falls Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff’s Office are located in the same building to better coordinate law enforcement operations, Wittenberg said in his release. He told his officers and any deputies the investigation is ongoing and “any information or evidence, including that about (‘Pokemon Go’), should not be released to the media except through established department channels.”
“This is proper police procedure and consistent with Minnesota state law,” he said in the statement.
He said his words were misunderstood by Meunier, adding he did not intend to “convey to any officers not to include this information in their confidential police reports.” He said it wouldn’t make sense to tell officers to leave information out of the report, pointing to the fact other reports mentioned “Pokemon Go.”
‘Put it to rest’ He said releasing information while the case was active was not appropriate and he tried to quell any rumors regarding the app. He met with Meunier to discuss the miscommunication, and the police chief added he and his department “regret that a misunderstanding regarding the release of information to the media has now become the focus of additional news reports.”
“Now that the accident investigation has been concluded, I can share the details of this unfortunate misunderstanding publicly,” he said in the statement. “The death of Gannon Hejlik is a tragedy that will affect this community for years.”
Kuznia said no one meant to cover up information regarding the crash. He considers the matter closed, adding there will be no disciplinary action taken against Meunier.
“He’s learned a big lesson here,” he said of Meunier. “It was a big misunderstanding, is what it was. It just kind of came out wrong.”
The crash has been hard on the community, especially in light of another crash that took the life of a young child last month, Kuznia said. Just weeks before the Hejlik case was closed, 7-year-old Anthony Fellman was hit and killed Oct. 6 while waiting for a school bus near his home about 10 miles southwest of Thief River Falls. The crash is under investigation.
“It’s just been a tough time, and I think everyone involved in this particular one has had a very difficult time,” Kuznia said of Hejlik’s death. “We just want to put it to rest for the family’s sake and move on.”