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Man sentenced to 45 years in S.D. trooper assault
Vargo: Attack on law enforcement an attack against the community

A Washington State man found guilty of trying to kill a South Dakota highway patrol trooper was sentenced Monday to 45 years in prison.

Donald Willingham, 36, was convicted by a jury in December of attempted murder and aggravated assault against Trooper Zachary Bader, as well as drug and firearm offenses.

The sentence came two and a half years after Bader stopped a Chevrolet Suburban for speeding along Interstate 90, near Box Elder. The SUV was carrying Willingham of Renton, Wash., and his three companions, who were en route from Seattle to Chicago with at least 40 pounds of marijuana, a handgun and $30,000 in cash, according to authorities.

Bader searched the vehicle, found marijuana and was about to handcuff Willingham when Willingham punched him to the ground. Bader lost consciousness and suffered serious injuries that morning of Oct. 24, 2015, including multiple facial fractures.

Police found Willingham and his companions later that day in Wall, where Willingham said he was preparing to turn himself in.

On Thursday morning, inside a packed Pennington County courtroom, State’s Attorney Mark Vargo asked for 50 years just on Willingham’s convictions for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

Vargo said the attack was cruel in nature, nearly killed the trooper and resulted in permanent injuries. Bader testified at Willingham's trial that the assault left him with some double vision in one eye, a misaligned bite and numbness on the left side of his face, which has turned eating and shaving into more complicated everyday activities.

On top of this, Vargo said Willingham has been “utterly and completely unrepentant.”

Bader, who returned to work in October 2016, sat listening in the gallery’s first row, dressed in his brown trooper attire. He was surrounded by family and friends, including several law enforcement officers in uniform. There were about 50 people in the audience; some had to take seats in the jury box. 

Vargo told Judge Wally Eklund that law enforcement officers deserve the judicial system’s protection given their mandate to stand up against “the degenerate, the amoral, the vile and the violent” in order to protect “the innocent and the vulnerable.”

An attack against law enforcement officers, Vargo said, was an attack against the community they represent.

Eklund sentenced Willingham to 25 years each on attempted murder and aggravated assault, ordering that the sentences run at the same time. The judge said he was tempted to impose consecutive sentences but was mindful of double jeopardy — a constitutional provision that prohibits multiple punishments for the same offense.

Eklund, a former 7th Circuit Judge who was ordered to remain on the case after his retirement in 2016, also sentenced Willingham to 15 years for marijuana possession and distribution, as well as five years for committing a felony with a firearm. He will be eligible for parole after serving 19.5 years.

Willingham was fined $120,000 and ordered to repay $146,000 in workers’ compensation, including Bader's medical expenses.

Willingham’s lawyer had asked the court for less than the maximum sentences, which would have added up to 105 years if run consecutively. Defense attorney Dennis Doherty gave several mitigating reasons, including that Willingham had no previous felony convictions and was relatively young.

Doherty maintained that Willingham’s two male companions during the traffic stop also assaulted Bader, as a defense witness said during trial.

Willingham spoke briefly: “I’m very sorry for the injury and harm to the officer. I apologize to the officer, his family and my family also.”

His three companions pleaded guilty in 2016 to drug and accessory charges. Eklund has sentenced them to prison time ranging from 1-1/2 years to 11 years.

Bader, 36, expressed his appreciation for the community’s support, saying in an interview that strangers still go up to him every day to thank him for his service. Last year, he was promoted to sergeant at the highway patrol, where he has worked for about 13 years.

When asked about the length of Willingham’s sentence, Bader said it was a decision outside his hands.

“I try not to think about that sort of thing,” he said. “I control what I control, and the courts will do the right thing.”

Mount Rushmore Road project nearing end

Early Sunday morning, the clocks turned forward. Early Monday morning, the cones came back.

On Monday, work on the finishing details of the last phase of the Mount Rushmore Road reconstruction began between Clark and St. Cloud streets. The work, which is being completed by Complete Contracting, Inc., will include asphalt removal, subgrade preparation, curb and gutter installation and the construction of a concrete median. Landscaping, pavement striping and the installation of hand rails along sidewalks is also planned, with completion pegged for May.

As a result of the road work, the left lanes between Clark and St. Cloud streets will be closed as a median is constructed between Fairview and St. James streets.

The final phase, which began last March, is estimated to cost about $9 million, with $7.5 million coming from the South Dakota Department of Transportation and the remaining $1.5 million coming from the city. Overall, the reconstruction project, which started in 2015, has a bill of about $30 million for all three phases of the road rebuild.

Anyone with questions or concerns about the project can contact Debby Heisinger of Ferber Engineering Company, Inc. at 343-3311 or

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North Dakota lawmakers sign off on medical marijuana rules

BISMARCK, N.D. | North Dakota lawmakers on Monday signed off on rules for the state's developing medical marijuana program, a necessary move if the drug is to be available to patients later this year.

The Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee reviewed the dozens of pages of proposed rules that the advisory State Health Council in January approved to cover such things as testing, security and transportation requirements.

The committee didn't take a formal vote on the rules but did not call for any changes or a delay in implementing them, effectively approving them.

The Health Department expects to announce an application period for medical marijuana manufacturers by the end of the week, said Jason Wahl, director of the Health Department's Medical Marijuana Division. That will be followed by application periods for dispensaries, patients and caregivers.

In South Dakota, supporters of a medical marijuana ballot measure submitted roughly 15,000 signatures to the state to put the initiative before November voters. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs' office will conduct a random sampling to determine if the campaign turned in the 13,871 valid signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

State voters approved medical marijuana in November 2016. The law crafted by North Dakota lawmakers last year allows for use of the drug for 17 medical conditions, along with terminal illnesses. The Health Department aims to have the drug available late this year.

State Rep. Mary Schneider, of Fargo, questioned the two-year time lag between voter approval and planned drug availability.

"For people in pain, every day is a day of misery and too long to wait," she said.

Wahl said the time frame is in line with what other states that have set up medical marijuana programs have experienced — an assertion backed up by the advocates group, Americans for Safe Access.

Wahl said North Dakota also is working to devise a system that will pass any federal government scrutiny. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January rescinded an Obama administration policy pledging that federal authorities wouldn't crack down on legal medical marijuana operations in states, as long as the states maintained tight regulations.

The impact of the decision isn't known, but Wahl said North Dakota officials believe that well-regulated state programs still will pass muster.

"We were always cognizant of the fact that the federal government would be looking at this program very closely," he said.

The Health Department held a public comment period late last year on the administrative rules, including six public hearings around the state. Some of the proposed rules were fine-tuned following that process, but other aspects of the program are set in state law and can only be changed by the Legislature, according to Wahl.

One example is the $90,000 fee for a two-year state certificate for a medical marijuana dispensary. Paul Aughinbaugh, who wants to set up a dispensary in Fargo, questioned the amount and whether the state would refund the money if recreational marijuana is ever legalized in North Dakota. Proponents of that are trying to gather enough petition signatures to force a statewide vote.

Should all marijuana become legal, "then what, do we have an empty building?" Aughinbaugh said.

Student walkout highlights divide on gun safety

Students flanked by opposing viewpoints on how to make Rapid City’s public schools safer will use a 17-minute walkout Wednesday to honor shooting victims and voice the need for stricter gun control.

Rapid City Area Schools will allow students to use a gym or commons area at 10 a.m. Wednesday to join a national movement to protest congressional inaction on gun violence.

But those in opposition to the walkout say the district is allowing student truancy, creating a potentially dangerous situation and stifling a conversation about whether staff members should have the opportunity to carry weapons and be trained for active-shooter scenarios.

“It would be really nice to have a calm, rational discussion,” said Elden Rice, parent of a Stevens High School student and president of Citizens for Academic Transparency. “The school doesn’t want to talk about it. Let the community decide.”

When gun control law was brought up during last week’s school safety community forum, which included a panel of law enforcement personnel, Rapid City Schools Superintendent Lori Simon said policy prohibits staff from taking sides in political issues.

Law enforcement on the panel, however, said a combination of liaison officers, ALICE training, law enforcement response training, building security measures, and quick law enforcement response times is adequate.

But Scott Craig, a former legislator and sponsor of the 2013 Sentinel Law, disagrees. The law allows a school board to arm employees, hired personnel or volunteers and designate them as school sentinels.

“The bill wasn’t to arm teachers,” Craig said, adding that it was created to give schools or law enforcement the ability to decide who — if anyone — should be armed.

The local sheriff would have to approve a sentinel, who would undergo the same training as a law enforcement officer for an active-shooter situation. If a district doesn’t have an armed liaison officer in every school, as is the case in Rapid City, Craig said, a sentinel is a great tool.

“ALICE offers a false sense of security,” he said. “The idea that you could teach children to protect themselves with markers and erasers you throw at the bad guy, that it is somehow better than taking an adult and giving them law enforcement-level training is not right.”

Human nature will kick in during an active-shooter situation, Craig said. 

“The moment (students) hear actual gunfire, they’re going to freeze or duck and cover unless you train it out of them, which is what can only be done in law enforcement or the military."

Craig said a scenario at the forum about a teacher in a practice situation being armed with an air gun and still getting shot was not an accurate example of a trained sentinel.

“That was a very poor example and unfair to the teacher,” Craig said. “That’s not what you do. You don’t just put a gun in their hand.”

But Stevens High School student Autumn Knight, 17, said she doesn’t want more guns in her school.

“The threat of guns is so prevalent that it is nearly impossible to be in a public space while feeling secure,” she said. “Until this threat of firearms is defused by strict gun control and possibly a ban on assault rifles, this generation will not stop working to create a safer society.”

Matt Seebaum, assistant superintendent of Educational Services for the district, said it wasn’t appropriate to host a debate about the Sentinel Law last week.

“It was never billed as a debate,” he said. “There was not an agenda. When that question came up, we’re bound by policy not to take a position on politically polarizing issues.”

That conversation, he said, needs to originate with the school board. As for the walkout, it was the best option, he added.

“It’s challenging,” he added. “Students do have a right to free speech in the school. We’ve run this through law enforcement, national and legal counsel and we’re on solid ground.”

The mandate to staff is clear on the gun control debate.

“Don’t take a side on this,” he said. “Don’t preach in class. Let students drive the discussion and we’ll be at a place where they can have that conversation.”

School board member Katharine Thomas said politics are at the heart of the walkout and wondered if the district will make exceptions for other student-led protests.

“How about pro-gun statements?” she said. “I worry we are now setting a precedent that allows disruption to education for any political statements.”

She is in favor of sentinels and hoping for more conversation.

“We should start valuing our kids like they are money in the bank, jewels in a diamond store, and priceless works of art in a museum,” she said. “Every one of those places are heavily guarded. The least we can do is have the conversation about the changes we need.”