A man accused of trying to kill a state trooper following a traffic stop was convicted Thursday on all his charges, a few hours after his travel companions were sentenced to prison.
A Pennington County jury found 35-year-old Donald Willingham guilty of attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, as well as commission of a felony with a firearm.
The verdict came about five hours after the jury was handed the case just before noon Thursday — and two years after Trooper Zachary Bader stopped a Chevrolet Suburban along Interstate 90 near Box Elder. The SUV, carrying Willingham and three others from Seattle, was pulled over for speeding and was searched after Bader smelled marijuana inside.
Bader found marijuana in the vehicle’s back cargo area and was about to handcuff Willingham when Willingham punched him to the ground and continued swinging, jurors were told in the course of the four-day trial.
“If you want him down, he is down. If you want to get away, you can get away. It is only if you want him to die that you need to continue the beating at this point,” county state’s attorney Mark Vargo said in his closing argument Thursday morning.
Willingham, in a recorded police interview played for the jury, admitted assaulting Bader. The Renton, Wash., man said he didn’t intend to hurt the trooper but was afraid of going to jail for transporting 40 pounds of marijuana and of Bader confiscating his $30,000 in cash.
“Nothing was premeditated,” lead defense attorney Dennis Doherty said in his closing argument, referring to Willingham’s attempted murder charge. “This was a spontaneous act of fury, a lack of impulse control.”
Doherty said his client gave a false confession, taking all the blame because he wanted to protect his girlfriend, who was present, and the child she was carrying.
A woman who witnessed the attack, and the first person to call 911, testified Thursday she saw two men kicking the trooper after he was knocked down to the ground by a different man. Doherty said this showed Willingham’s two male companions were as culpable in the trooper assault; Vargo said the witness statement was inaccurate.
Doherty denied also that Willingham was guilty of the firearm charge, saying the handgun that police found with the drugs belonged to one of his male travel companions.
That man, 24-year-old Jonathan Melendez, was sentenced Thursday afternoon to 1-1/2 years in prison for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and being an accessory to a crime.
He and Willingham’s then-girlfriend, Desiree Sukert, as well as her brother, Chase Sukert, pleaded guilty last year to the same two charges. Melendez received the most lenient punishment after authorities found him to have been the most honest and cooperative, and law-abiding since he was released on bond.
On Tuesday, Melendez testified against Willingham in accordance with his plea deal with prosecutors.
The Sukert siblings, meanwhile, were not called to testify despite their plea agreements. Vargo told the judge that Desiree Sukert, 28, maintained contact with Willingham up to “just days ago,” leaving the prosecution doubtful she was truly on their side and understood the gravity of her offenses.
She was sentenced to five years in prison.
Chase Sukert, 25, was given 11 years. The court was told he has a pending charge in Washington state after being involved in a car chase with police last year. He apparently crashed and would have been killed if he hadn't been rescued by a state trooper.
Retired 7th Circuit Judge Wally Eklund, who continued to preside over the case, reprimanded the three defendants for not coming to Bader’s aid and for driving away with Willingham. All four were arrested in Wall, about an hour after they left Bader bleeding badly beside the interstate.
Melendez and the Sukerts, all Washington state residents, individually apologized to Bader, who attended the sentencing hearings and the verdict announcement.
Bader sat beside his wife in the first row of the gallery as the judge read Willingham’s five guilty verdicts.
Picking 40 buckets’ worth of rocks out of a 2-foot-square, 16-foot-deep, snake-infested concrete shaft was not Paul Bosworth’s idea of a good time.
“It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had to work,” he said.
But he likes the result, which is the restoration of a scenic Black Hills pond that was reduced to a stream running through a dry basin.
The 7-acre pond, with a maximum depth of perhaps 10 feet when full, was created in 1936 when the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Slate Creek Dam about 10 miles north of Hill City. Two streams — Slate Creek and a smaller drainage channel running out of Skull Draw — converge there in the Black Hills National Forest at the base of a high and massive slate formation.
In the decades since, the pond has provided water for cattle that are periodically permitted to graze in the area and has also served as a fishing hole. The state Department of Game, Fish & Parks routinely stocked the pond with trout.
But the stocking ended after 2000, which may have coincided with the deterioration of wood boards in the dam’s outlet works. The boards were supposed to regulate the amount of water in the pond, but after years of rot, water began running through the outlet works with little to stop it. The pond still filled during periods of high inflows, but the water eventually drained out and the pond was sometimes dry.
Users of the dying pond apparently made futile attempts to save it by tossing rocks and other debris down the shaft of the outlet works and into the attached culvert, in the vain hope of creating a plug to hold back the water. By the time a crew of U.S. Forest Service workers came to fix the outlet works over several days beginning in October, they found not only the rocks — enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket 40 times — but also bottles, cans, sticks and snakes.
Bosworth, a civil engineer for the Forest Service, and Corbin Herman, a civil engineering technician, each spent time working in the cramped shaft. When a bucket was filled with rocks and other debris, workers above the shaft pulled it up by rope.
Meanwhile, a Forest Service fire crew kept the outlet works dry by using pumps and hoses to divert water that flowed in from the two streams.
Inside the outlet works, grooves run down opposite sides of the shaft to accommodate the vertical insertion of 2-by-12-inch wood boards, one atop the other. After cleaning out the shaft, workers inserted 12 new boards to replace the old rotted boards.
As water runs into the outlet works, it flows up against the wall of boards, and water is retained in the pond. Boards can be added or removed to regulate the water depth, and when the water gets too high, it spills over the top board and flows out a culvert on the other side of the dam. Excess water can also flow over a nearby spillway.
Wednesday, the pond was mostly iced over and snow-covered. The spring thaw could bring a visit from GF&P to evaluate the pond’s fish-stocking potential, said Jake Davis, the department’s area fisheries supervisor in Rapid City.
Davis said the department visited the pond in 2010 and found some naturally occurring brook trout and brown trout, but when the department last visited the pond in 2016, it was “essentially dewatered.”
Fishing is one of several recreational opportunities in and around the Slate Creek Dam. Motorized trails in the area are popular with ATVers, and there is a hiking trail below the dam alongside Slate Creek. To the north a few miles is the site of a former cabin that once belonged to a Nebraska governor, Samuel McKelvie, who hosted a visit to the cabin in 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge.
Rapid City residents can find the dam by driving to Hill City and then taking Deerfield Road to Mystic Road and turning onto Horse Creek Road, aka Forest Service Road 530, for the final 3 miles to the dam. A seasonal closure is annually imposed on Forest Service Road 530 from Dec. 15 to May 15, but the dam remains open to nonmotorized users during the road closure.
Mark Vedder, range program manager and Mystic District staff officer for the Black Hills National Forest, worked on the restoration of the dam. He said the pond probably still needs dredging in the future to restore some capacity lost to silt, but in the meantime it is gratifying to see a Civilian Conservation Corps project receive much-needed repairs.
The federal CCC program was begun during the 1930s to provide jobs for young men during the Great Depression, and CCC workers built many dams, cabins, bridges and other projects that still stand in the Black Hills National Forest and elsewhere.
Now that the dam and pond are in better condition, Vedder anticipates more use of the relatively forgotten Black Hills gem.
“A lot of people don’t really realize they have this here,” he said.
Nearly two weeks after the Legion Lake Fire ignited, eventually scorching 84 square miles in and around Custer State Park, the park will fully reopen today.
While all interior roads and trails will be accessible, park officials ask visitors to use caution when driving on the park’s roads or hiking on trails, with the effects of the fire still being discovered.
“Be diligent and just watch as you drive through the park,” said Lydia Austin, interpretive programs manager for the park. “Be aware of your surroundings.”
The fire, which began Dec. 11 when gusting winds blew a tree into a power line near the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 North, ended up burning about 58 square miles inside the park’s boundaries, with approximately 11 square miles consumed in the eastern portion of neighboring Wind Cave National Park.
The remaining 15 square miles were on private land to the south and east.
According to a release from the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, park officials continue to work on fencing, trail and road repairs as well as assessing the condition of wildlife.
One of the park’s nine burros had to be put down after veterinarians determined the animal suffered organ failure and would not survive injuries from the fire.
The burros, many suffering burns and other injuries when high winds pushed the fire beyond the park’s borders on Dec. 12, were transferred to an enclosed, off-site facility and continue to receive daily treatment, park officials said.
The majority of the bison herd have been located near the park’s bison corrals and will continue to be evaluated and monitored.
Austin said along with watching for possible pneumonia from the effects of smoke inhalation, veterinarians say that many bison had their winter coats damaged by the fire.
“As the buffalo come in and we’re able to evaluate them, we’re going to be looking for injuries such as that,” she said.
Some deer, elk and buffalo also had to be put down because of injuries from the fire.
Visitors are asked to report injured or deceased wildlife to the park office. Officials will continue to watch for impacts to elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and deer.
Planned hunting seasons for mountain lion and coyote will also open as scheduled on Tuesday. Free access permits were available for both seasons to residents only. More information for both seasons can be found at gfp.sd.gov.
However, two antlerless elk hunting seasons, set for Dec. 30 to Jan. 7 and Jan. 13 to 31, have been canceled due to the vast area burned within these hunting units and because of the absence of elk in the area.
Park officials said all campgrounds and resorts will be fully functional for visitors during for the spring and summer seasons.
A spokesman for Wind Cave National Park said the park’s main access road and visitor’s center are open, with other trails opening when travel restrictions are lifted for Custer State Park. Some backcountry roads in the park may remain closed, however, he said.