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McGrath pleads guilty to criminal vehicular homicide

Robert McGrath

Robert Louis McGrath admitted he'd drunk "eight, maybe 10 beers" prior to getting behind the wheel of his Chevy pickup on January 21.

He left the Park Rapids American Legion Club, where he drank his final two beers, swerved over a center line on Highway 34 east of Park Rapids and collided head-on with a pickup truck driven by Dale McDougall in the opposing lane of traffic.

"I don't recall exactly how many I had to drink," McGrath testified Friday afternoon, in pleading guilty to one count of Criminal Vehicular Homicide and Second Degree Driving While Intoxicated.

In a plea agreement, prosecutors will drop a second count of Criminal Vehicular Conduct. Sentencing will be in about a month. At press time, no date had been set.

Friday was the date set for an omnibus hearing, but instead McGrath entered his plea.

His blood alcohol level was .17 percent, according to court records.

"I won't dispute that," the defendant admitted on the witness stand.

McGrath, one month shy of his 50th birthday, entered his plea in Hubbard County District Court before Judge Earl Maus.

McDougall, 53, of Hitterdal, died shortly after being airlifted to a Fargo hospital. McGrath suffered a badly broken leg; doctors at Innovis Hospital in Fargo operated to implant a steel rod in his leg after he was airlifted, just before another helicopter transported McDougall.

Under questioning by assistant Hubbard County Attorney Erika Randall, McGrath, looking disheveled and frail and still using a crutch to walk with, admitted he operated his vehicle in a negligent manner.

"Yes I did and I'm sorry about it," he said in a barely audible voice. He showed no emotion.

McDougall's widow, Linda, was sitting in the front row of the courtroom with other family members. She declined comment after the plea. But the family members indicated to Maus they will give statements at the sentencing hearing.

The Criminal Vehicular Injury charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and/or a $20,000 fine. The DWI charge is punishable by a maximum of a $3,000 fine and/or one year in jail.

There is some disagreement between defense and prosecuting attorneys as to whether the sentences should run consecutively, as Randall suggested, or concurrently, as defense attorney Michael Undem wishes.

Maus asked them to submit brief on their positions.

For sentencing purposes, only two of McGrath's four known prior alcohol-related offenses will count to enhance his sentence. The other charges are outside the 10-year range that applies.

Maus ordered a pre-sentence investigation, which is routine in criminal cases.­