Ward County prosecutor won't bring charges against former Williston officer involved in fatal crash

Firefighters stand near a crashed car near the intersection of 42nd Street and Second Avenue.

Early this year, the Ward County State’s Attorney decided not to bring any charges against a former Williston police officer who was involved in a fatal car crash while on duty in September.

A memo and investigative notes, obtained by the Williston Herald through a public records request, lay out the most complete picture yet available of what happened early on the morning of Sept. 25. That was when a police SUV driven by Sgt. Dustin Bertsch and a Hyundai Sonata driven by Wendy Newsome collided in the intersection of 42nd Street West and Second Avenue West. Newsome died on the scene and Bertsch was injured. Bertsch was on leave from the time of the crash until Feb. 28, when he resigned from the Williston Police Department.

The five-page memo, dated Jan. 8 and signed by Ward County State’s Attorney Rozanna Larson, concludes that Bertsch didn’t act recklessly or negligently and that he didn’t violate any of the legal requirements for police officers and other first responders using emergency lights and sirens.

“Based upon all of the above analysis, the State is declining prosecution in this matter,” Larson wrote. “This is not meant to have holding to any other remedies, actions of law or disciplinary actions that may be available to Ms. Newsome’s family or the supervisors of the Williston Police Department.”

What happened

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Sept. 25, Bertsch and Williston police officer Evan Johnson were in separate patrol vehicles near the Upper Missouri Valley Fairgrounds when they got a call about an officer in a fight at the emergency room at CHI St. Alexius. The pair both turned on their lights and sirens and headed south on Second Avenue West.

Moments later, both vehicles approached the intersection of 42nd Street West and Second Avenue West, where there is a traffic light. Multiple witnesses told the North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers who investigated the crash that both officers were traveling at a high rate of speed.

In an interview after the crash, Bertsch told investigators that he was going about 70 mph shortly before the crash, but that he had lightly tapped his brakes when approaching the intersection.

As Bertsch and Johnson were heading south, Newsome was driving west on 42nd Street, on her way to her job at Walmart. Newsome had a green light and proceeded through the intersection.

Throughout the investigation, police have maintained that Newsome’s car struck Bertsch’s SUV. Only one witness account, taken the next day and supplemented by a written statement the witness provided to police, claims otherwise.

That account, offered by someone who witnessed the crash from the parking lot of Walmart, suggested that Newsome’s car slowed down in the intersection and was hit by Bertsch’s SUV.

Video shows crash

A review of police dash cam footage from Johnson’s patrol car shows Bertsch’s SUV traveling south and appearing to slow slightly before the intersection. When Bertsch’s SUV was in the middle of the intersection, Newsome’s Hyundai appears in the far left of the frame.

The video, which the Herald has reviewed but has chosen not to publish because of its graphic nature, seems to show Newsome’s car striking Bertsch’s SUV. In the approximately two seconds her car is visible, her speed doesn’t appear to vary.

When the two cars collide, Bertsch’s SUV crashes into the post holding up the street sign in the intersection, eventually landing in the ditch between the roadway and a parking lot. Newsome’s car is sent spinning and comes to rest facing east across both southbound lanes of Second Avenue West.

As the crash happens, Johnson starts to talk into his police radio.

“PD, 6-0,” he says, using his own call number. “10-50, 10-50, 4-0 (Bertsch’s call number) just got struck head-on. I need all units to respond, all units to respond.”

In the memo Ward County State’s Attorney Larson prepared, she writes that Newsome had a duty to yield to an emergency vehicle but didn’t.

“On the video it can be seen that the Newsome vehicle was approaching the intersection and did not make any effort to slow down, yield or avoid the collision,” Larson wrote. “According to the reconstruction diagrams that were produced in this investigation, it would appear that visibility should not have been an issue from the vantage point of the Newsome vehicle approaching the intersection.”

The crash that killed Newsome and injured Bertsch was one of five deadly crashes in Williams and McKenzie counties in the span of just a few weeks. Charges have been filed in two of those crashes.

On May 22, Khatelyn Carter was charged with negligent homicide, a class C felony, related to a Sept. 21 crash that killed 15-year-old Kennedy Hansen. James Whitcomb was charged June 4 with a class C felony count of negligent homicide related to an Oct. 1 crash that killed Terry Lynn.

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