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Prosecution: Trooper was 'fighting for his life' after beating

Drugs, money and a gun were worth more to Donald Willingham than the life of a state trooper, Pennington County’s head prosecutor said.

Willingham is accused of multiple felonies, including the attempted killing of Trooper Zachary Bader in October 2015, and his trial got underway Tuesday morning.

County state’s attorney Mark Vargo said the attack happened while Willingham and three friends were traveling from Seattle to Chicago, carrying at least 40 pounds of marijuana and $30,000 in cash. Bader saw their Chevrolet Suburban speeding along Interstate 90 in Pennington County, pulled the vehicle over and issued a warning ticket to the driver.

The encounter turned more serious when Bader asked the passengers to exit the vehicle so he could search it. The trooper had detected the smell of marijuana inside the SUV and, on top of that, heard different stories from the driver and his three passengers about where the group was headed, Vargo said.

A dashcam video recorded from Bader’s patrol car, presented to jurors, showed the trooper inspecting items in the vehicle’s back compartment then reaching for his handcuffs as he walked off the camera's view.

Sounds of a struggle could be heard while two men and a woman ran toward the Suburban. Another man jumped inside and the vehicle sped away, leaving the sound of someone moaning in apparent pain and distress.

“He was fighting for his life,” Vargo said of Bader, who was found lying face-down by a ditch on the interstate. The left side of the trooper's face was bloodied beyond recognition, said a witness who was one of the first passersby to discover him and call for help.

Willingham, 35, of Renton, Wash., is being tried for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He also is facing charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, as well as commission of a felony with a firearm that he allegedly brought along to protect the drugs.

Willingham’s most severe charges — attempted murder and aggravated assault — each carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.

Vargo, in his 20-minute opening statement, said Willingham went back and forth denying and admitting his offenses. This included beating up the trooper and transporting multiple bags of marijuana, the state's attorney said.

The drugs were found along a rural South Dakota highway, where they were reportedly discarded by the defendants as they fled the scene. A photo from one of the defendants' cellphones led investigators to the spot.

Willingham’s lead attorney, Dennis Doherty, told jurors during his opening statement to keep an open mind and to wait till they’ve heard all testimonies before forming an opinion on the case.

Some serious matters “are in great dispute,” he said, adding that lawyers' assertions are not evidence.

“Keep in mind: The prosecutors were not there. They were not witnesses,” said Doherty, a Chicago lawyer retained by Willingham. Doherty earlier requested the court to exclude from trial the sounds of pain and distress recorded by the trooper's dashcam.

Doherty asked jurors to consider each of his client’s charges separately. He spoke for only two minutes, and the presiding judge asked to confirm that he was done.

Willingham and his companions were arrested in Wall about an hour after they left Bader. A Pennington County sheriff’s deputy who was looking for their vehicle spotted it by accident when he stopped to refuel in Wall. The Suburban was parked behind a motel, its four occupants inside or near it.

The Suburban’s driver during the traffic stop, Chase Sukert, his sister and Willingham’s girlfriend, Desiree Sukert, and a common friend, Jonathan Melendez, were also accused of multiple felonies. They were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, commission of a felony with a firearm and accessory to a crime.

All three, also Washington state residents, pleaded guilty in May 2016 to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and being an accessory to a crime. Their pleas came as part of a deal with the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office, in which they agreed to testify against Willingham at trial. They are expected to be sentenced sometime this week.

In the dashcam video, Chase Sukert was heard telling Bader inside the patrol car that the group was attending a family reunion in the Midwest. From inside the Suburban, on the other hand, Desiree Sukert, Melendez and Willingham told Bader they were headed to school in Iowa.

Bader will be testifying at the trial, Vargo told the jury. The trooper was hospitalized and returned to work with the South Dakota Highway Patrol about a year ago.

Retired 7th Circuit Judge Wally Eklund is presiding over the trial, which is scheduled to run till Thursday. Eklund was assigned to the case in 2015 and the state Supreme Court ordered him to continue hearing it even after his retirement last year.

Willingham is detained at the Pennington County Jail in lieu of a $5 million bond, the highest bond amount among the jail’s current inmates.


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Spreading the love of reading, one miniature library at a time

Tyrone Ware wants to share his love of reading with underprivileged kids throughout Rapid City, which is why he’s erecting miniature free libraries across town for his Eagle Scout project.

“My mom would read to me all the time when I was growing up, and I truly enjoyed this time with her,” Wart said in a news release. “Reading is a huge part of my life today ... I believe that by making lending libraries accessible to others, they can enjoy books too.”

On Tuesday Ware installed the first of six lending libraries in the lobby of the Community Health Center of the Black Hills. The libraries are converted newspaper stands, brightly painted and filled with donated children's books. Ware plans to place the remaining libraries outside Youth & Family Services and at a few elementary schools. 

He partnered with United Way of the Black Hills Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Initiative to make his project a reality.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to help get books into the hands of children that need it the most,” said Danita Simons, United Way Community Impact director, in a release. “Our goal is to get children to learn to read so that they can read to learn.”


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Concerns grow over lack of details on homeless campus

A discussion intended to provide information on Rapid City Collective Impact’s proposed transformation center turned into an indictment Tuesday on the lack of details related to the project.

The conversation, which attracted a robust crowd at the Pennington County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, came after Commissioner Ron Buskerud’s request at the board’s Dec. 5 meeting for someone from Collective Impact to come before the board at their next meeting to discuss the project’s details.

However, no one from Collective Impact attended Tuesday's meeting and without any representation, the board debated whether it would be fair to allow members of the public to ask questions about the project. Commissioners Lloyd LaCroix and Mark DiSanto seemed to think it unfair.

“The way this was presented to the public wasn’t right,” LaCroix said, explaining he thought it duped people into thinking the board would be providing information on the project at the meeting rather than requesting information from Collective Impact. "We’re not going to hear all the sides.”

LaCroix added that he believed Collective Impact would come forward with information at public meetings in the near future. Commission Chairwoman Deb Hadcock, though, had no issue with allowing the discourse.

“I’ve been going around to many groups ... and I don’t feel like those answers, the data and what they’ve shown me are coming together,” Hadcock said, expressing dismay that by asking questions about the project, people suddenly assumed she was against it.

“Show me your proof, and show me your data.”

Hadcock added that having to find out about the $16 million project’s location in the newspaper when it will be located across the street from the county’s campus and neighboring the restoration center was the real “disingenuous” act.

Commissioner Ron Buskerud held no punches when offering his take, calling the location "terrible." 

The transformation center’s proposed location is just east of the county’s soon-to-be-opened restoration center, 321 Kansas City St. It would be situated on properties including 121, 131, 141, 151, 201 and 217 Kansas City St., a house at 216 Quincy St., and a long, narrow storage building behind the Archaeological Research Center of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

When DiSanto opined that the county has little say on the matter given that Collective Impact project manager Charity Doyle has stated the program will not be asking for any money from the county — it’s expected to ask for $7 million from Rapid City — Buskerud quickly disagreed.

“We have a big investment to protect,” he said of the $14 million restoration center. In past interviews, Doyle has stated she hopes the restoration center and transformation center could collaborate. “I think we have an absolute right to know what’s going on,” Buskerud added.

Immediately after the discussion, assistant state's attorney Jay Alderman explained that the county did indeed have some control over the situation.

As part of the purchase agreement with local developer Hani Shafai when the county purchased the former NAU building for its restoration center, the county had the right of first refusal for all other Shafai-owned properties in the area. Shafai currently owns 121, 131, 141, 151, 201 and 217 Kansas City St. — comprising the College Station apartments, National American University Animal Health Center and Archaeological Research Center of the South Dakota State Historical Society — and a home at 216 Quincy St. just behind the Archaeological Research Center.

Alderman and Mike Kuhl, construction project manager in the county's Buildings and Grounds Department, said the College Station apartments were not part of the right of first refusal clause, which gives the county the right to buy the properties from Shafai before he enters into a purchase agreement with another party. Kuhl said the county would have 45 days from the date of a signed offer on the properties to decide whether to respond and buy the property instead.

With that newfound knowledge, the board then allowed members of the public to speak.

Joseph Wright, associate vice president for research and economic development at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, spoke on behalf of the school’s interim president, Jan Puszynski. Wright expressed the school’s concerns about how the center’s location would affect student safety and efforts to create a corridor linking the school to downtown Rapid City.

Jamie Hale, president of DarCEO Inc., a professional engineering firm involved in industrial, military/aerospace and medical markets, said he was considering making a $4 to $5 million investment in the downtown area but was hesitant given the lack of information available on the project. Hale said he wanted to see a 20-year business plan to understand the long-term economic impact of such an endeavor.

“I don’t think the due diligence has been done,” he told board members, later adding outside the boardroom that if the center was successful, he would expect the operation costs to decrease over time as less homeless people required assistance.

Darren Haar, who serves as a board member for several city and county organizations including the Pennington County Drug and Alcohol Board, also spoke up. He said that casting off those concerned with the project as “not in my backyarders” was unfair and prevented the dialogue and information sharing necessary to make a smart, informed decision.

“We just have a lot of questions,” said Haar, who is also the current Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Mines and chair of the Black Hills Regional Angel Fund, which is designed to provide funds for local entrepreneurs in exchange for equity in the business.

“Please hear our concerns, review our data and let us see yours.”

Outside the boardroom after the discussion concluded, Haar questioned how Collective Impact decided on the size of the proposed 4-acre campus. He also wants more information on the operation and maintenance plan, and what consideration was given to placing a number of similar, smaller centers around Rapid City as opposed to one large, central location.

Haar and others have expressed concern that the campus may attract an influx of homeless people from other states that lack such services.

He also mentioned past decisions in Rapid City when data, planning and information were lacking and resulted in poor decisions, citing The Journey Museum’s location and civic center plan in 2015 as two examples.

Late Tuesday evening, Collective Impact sent out a news release saying a public presentation of the proposed transformation campus would be held at an undetermined date in late January. No other details were provided.