South Dakota State Trooper Zachary Bader was brutally beaten and left for dead by a suspected drug courier Saturday in a case that, according to court records, shows how teamwork and diligence by Bader's fellow law enforcement officers from across the Rapid City region helped save his life and catch a group of smuggling suspects.
It's a story that features a West River officer who was just doing his job; a brazen beating and flight by the suspects; and a coordinated effort by other officers to catch those responsible and conduct a nighttime search to find 50 pounds of pot and a gun that were hidden along a rural roadside.
The court records reviewed by the Journal on Tuesday also reveal that the man charged with attempted murder and other offenses in the Saturday morning beating of Bader admitted to investigators that he had "punched Trooper Bader more than once during the traffic stop" along Interstate 90, according to a law enforcement affidavit requesting a search warrant.
Donald Willingham, 33, of Renton, Wash., made his initial appearance in Circuit Court on Tuesday. He is accused of attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer, committing a felony while carrying a firearm and possession of one pound or more of marijuana with intent to distribute.
As of Tuesday evening, Willingham was being held in the Pennington County Jail on $5 million bond.
Three separate documents in the court record, including the affidavit for the search warrant, state that Willingham admitted beating Bader, who was hospitalized after the incident with what were described as serious but non-life threatening injuries. He was found lying face down and disoriented after an apparently savage beating, the reports say.
Three people riding in the silver 2015 Chevrolet Suburban with Willingham also are facing criminal charges. All made their first appearances in court on various drug or weapons charges Tuesday. Desiree Sukert, 26, of Renton, Wash., and Jonathan Melendez, 22, of Kent, Wash. are in the Pennington County Jail on $1 million bond.
Chase Sukert, 23, of Renton, Wash., is jailed on drug charges with a $750,000 bond.
According to several reports by law enforcement officers, the incident unfolded this way:
At 11:02 a.m. on Saturday, Bader stopped the eastbound Suburban at about mile marker 70 on Interstate 90, east of Rapid City. The reason for the stop is not explained in the court documents.
Bader took the driver, Chase Sukert, back to the patrol car. Sukert told Bader three more people were in the Suburban, including his sister, Desiree.
Chase Sukert stayed in the patrol car while Bader, having received permission from Sukert to search the vehicle, walked to the Suburban and noticed the aroma of marijuana inside it. At that point, Bader ordered the three passengers out of the vehicle and into a ditch paralleling I-90.
Bader then searched the Suburban. Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Paul Stevens, who reviewed the recording made by Bader's dashboard camera, wrote that Bader "appeared to identify something in the trunk that caused him to attempt to arrest one of the occupants."
At that point, Bader walked to the ditch, which was out of the view of the dashboard camera.
Stevens wrote: "As Trooper Bader walked out of the camera view a sound consistent with a struggle could be heard."
At about 11:24 a.m., a witness called the 911 dispatch center to report that four or five people were attacking Bader.
Next, the recording showed that Desiree Sukert and Jonathan Melendez ran to the Suburban. Then Chase Sukert left the patrol car and went to the Suburban.
The patrol car's recording "picked up a moaning sound," according to a report.
In a supporting report, Rapid City Police Det. Stephen Neavill wrote: "At one point, a male voice is heard to say 'go to sleep.' We have reasonably concluded that this is Mr. Willingham."
Willingham, who faces the most serious charges, then got into the Suburban, which continued eastbound.
At 11:25, Senior Officer Gene Lansdowne of the Box Elder Police Department arrived at the scene of the beating. Several civilians at the scene told Lansdowne that Bader was "bleeding very bad," according to Lansdowne's report.
"I placed gauze on several areas of his face where he appeared to be bleeding," Lansdowne wrote. "Trooper Bader kept trying to move or get up, I tried to calm him. He informed that his duty belt was hurting him. I took his duty belt off of him noting that his gun was still in its holster."
Bader's "face was swollen and I noticed a bloody injury on the back of his head, there was also a small amount of blood coming out of his right ear," Lansdowne wrote.
Emergency medical personnel arrived.
While Bader was taken to Rapid City Regional Hospital with injuries referred to in Neavill's report as "a broken mandible, multiple facial fractures and ... missing at least one tooth," authorities searched for the Suburban, which had New Mexico license plates.
Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Rose went east on I-90 and at first had no luck spotting the Suburban. But when he reached the Jackson County line, he turned around and stopped at a convenience store in Wall to refuel.
"While at the gas pump," Rose wrote in a report, "I saw a newer Chevrolet Suburban, silver in color, parked behind the office of America's Best Value Inn."
Rose radioed that he might have spotted the suspect vehicle. Two U.S. Forest Service Officers, fueling at a different station in Wall, heard Rose's call, and the three teamed up, heading to the motel.
They saw Desiree Sukert and Jonathan Melendez at the Suburban. Rose wrote: "I drew my duty weapon and ordered both individuals to get down on the ground." They complied.
At that point, Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Cole arrived and handcuffed the two suspects. The reports are unclear as to how Chase Sukert was apprehended.
Willingham apparently was nearby, and was identified by one of the other three suspects as an occupant of the Suburban.
A search of the Suburban failed to find any drugs.
The two Sukerts and Melendez were taken to the Pennington County Criminal Investigation Division in Rapid City, while Willingham was taken to Rapid City Regional Hospital with a possible broken left hand.
At about 5:40 p.m., Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Kylie Kintigh was assigned to be with Willingham as he received treatment for his broken hand. In her supporting report, Kintigh wrote that she was informed not to ask him any questions about the incident.
She wrote: "While in the room with Donald (Willingham), he made several random voluntary statements in reference to the situation involving South Dakota State Trooper Bader. The following statements were direct quotes from Donald:
"They didn't do anything, it was all me.
"I hit him once.
"I thought he was going to do something to me and I just blanked out.
"I hope I didn't put those people in a bad position ... by hitting a cop ... the people in the car.
"I'll take my punishment.
"You can't post bond for hitting a cop can you?
"I hate when I fight ... I can't stop, I just can't stop."
After Willingham's treatment at the hospital, he joined the others at the criminal investigations division.
Deputy Paul Stevens' report said the four suspects "were interviewed after being read their Miranda Warning and waiving their rights."
According to the report, Melendez said Willingham paid him $2,000 to drive from Seattle to Illinois "knowing that drugs were being transported in the vehicle." Melendez also said he saw Willingham assault Bader.
Desiree Sukert said she was aware Willingham sold marijuana and that the trip was most likely drug-related. She said she saw Willingham "swing at Trooper Bader."
Chase Sukert said he was paid $1,000 by Willingham to drive from Seattle to Illinois. He also said he saw Willingham assault Bader.
Stevens' report said Willingham "stated he assaulted Trooper Bader as he believed Trooper Bader was going to attack him during the traffic stop and 'take my money.'"
Authorities found $30,000 in cash in the Suburban, Stevens' report noted.
A telephone helped resolve the question of whether the Suburban was transporting drugs.
Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Jakob Whittle wrote that Deputy Nicholas Nelson had received a photograph "that was taken from the suspects' phone," showing a scene from rural Pennington County.
At about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, Nelson and Whittle received more photographs and narrowed their search to a scene shown in one of them.
"The photograph showed a single fence post that had a clump of white flowers on either side of it," Whittle wrote. "As we approached this area, (another deputy) saw that there was a pack of cigarettes lying on the ground."
Then one of the deputies spotted "something black on the hill that we had just walked down," Whittle wrote.
It was, Deputy Nelson wrote, "a large black duffel bag, two large black tool boxes and a white plastic bag containing a vacuumed sealed bag full of marijuana."
The scene, in a rural area off Highway 29 in Meade County, is about 17 miles from the ditch in which Bader was beaten. There, deputies found more than 50 pounds of marijuana and a handgun believed to have been stashed by the suspects.