A judge has found a Sioux Falls woman guilty of vehicular homicide in a fatal Lake County accident that happened last December. 49-year-old Natalie Angle had a court trial Wednesday in Lake County Circuit Court on vehicular homicide and DUI charges, stemming from an accident west of Madison in December of 2018 in which 69-year-old James Birgen of Madison was killed.
Lake County State’s Attorney Wendy Kloeppner called six witnesses to testify during Wednesday’s court trial in front of Circuit Judge Pat Pardy. Angle’s boyfriend, Kevin Eichacker, testified that she had left his house west of Madison the evening of December 17th and the accident happened just about two miles from there. He said that she had drank some whiskey and Diet Coke before she left and took a drink with her, but he said he thought she was ok to drive.
A witness to the accident, Troy Raguse, who was driving a semi eastbound behind Birgen’s vehicle that evening on Highway 34, said he saw a “flash of black” referring to Angle’s Hummer. He said he saw the vehicle sideswipe Birgen’s pickup, which then rolled onto its side and Birgen was ejected from it. Raguse said that he saw Angle’s Hummer then roll several times in the south ditch.
Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Grant Lanning testified that he responded to the accident scene and noticed a strong odor of alcohol in Angle’s vehicle. He said when he asked if she had been consuming alcohol, Angle said she had. Lanning said Angle was taken to Madison Regional Health for her injuries. There, Lanning said, blood samples were later drawn and showed Angle’s blood alcohol level approximately two hours after the accident at point-two-four-two. Lanning also testified that he interviewed Angle at the hospital that night and she said she was distracted by her dogs in the back of her vehicle when the accident happened.
Lake County Sheriff Tim Walburg testified to the scene of the accident and his help in the reconstruction of the scene. He said that he talked to Angle at the hospital and said that she didn’t understand what he was saying about the accident and said she thought she had hit a semi. Walburg said he told her that she hit a pickup and killed the man driving it, then arrested her and took her to the Lake County Detention Center.
State Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Gacke helped with the reconstruction of the accident the next day, and said he considered several factors in determining that Angle’s speed had to be a factor in the crash. He said that after collecting information from within Angle’s Hummer, he was able to determine that she had been traveling at 85-miles-an-hour at the time of the accident, crossed the center line, and hit Birgen’s pickup on the driver’s side, which caused it to rotate and come to rest on its passenger side.
Angle’s attorney, Manuel deCastro, did not call any witnesses for the defense. He made a motion for judgment of acquittal, and said that the state hadn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt what Angle’s blood alcohol was at the time of the crash, only an assumption based on samples that were taken hours later.
Judge Pardy took 30 minutes after hearing testimony Wednesday to come back with his verdict in the court trial. He denied deCastro’s motion for acquittal and found Angle guilty of DUI, because he said she was in control of a vehicle on December 17th and had more than the legal amount of alcohol in her blood at the time of the accident. The judge also found Angle guilty of vehicular homicide because he said she operated a vehicle in a “negligent manner” by driving 85-miles-an-hour – 20 miles over the posted speed limit on the highway – crossed into the left lane, and crashed into the victim’s vehicle. He also said that her drinking and being distracted by her dogs showed her negligence in her driving, causing Birgen’s death. Judge Pardy said that Angle’s statements to law enforcement support his findings in the case.
A pre-sentence investigation will be completed and Angle will be sentenced on the vehicular homicide and DUI charges on November 26th.