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Plea deal talks fail; trial set in Pelican Rapids fatal bus crash

Loren Ernst

A trial is back on for the Moorhead bus driver who is charged with vehicular homicide in a fatal crash that killed a teenager from Pelican Rapids, Minn.

Attorneys have been trying to reach a plea agreement for Loren Ernst, who was behind the wheel when an early morning crash on Interstate 94 near Albertville, Minn., killed 16-year-old Jessica Weishair on April 5, 2008.

Ernst told a colleague he was tired and asked if his bus was drifting off the road less than 90 minutes before the bus he was driving left the interstate and tipped over, pinning Weishair beneath it and injuring several others.

At a plea hearing Wednesday in Wright County District Court, Ernst could have changed his not guilty plea to guilty if a deal had been in place.

Instead, negotiations fell apart and a trial date was set for Jan. 4, said Brian Lutes, an assistant Wright County attorney. There are no hearings scheduled before then, Lutes said.

Ernst faces three charges in the crash: criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular injury and criminal vehicular operation - the first two are felonies and the third is a misdemeanor.

Lutes has offered a 180-day sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, served as a mix of jail and alternatives such as community service and home monitoring.

The prosecutor said on Wednesday that he would leave the offer on the table until about mid-December.

Ernst's attorney, Eric Olson, has said 180 days is too long, particularly when he believes his client has not committed a crime.

Sentence length did not come up in negotiations Wednesday, Lutes said. He said the sticking point was whether Ernst would retain his license to drive.

Olson didn't return messages left at his office Wednesday.

Mark Richards, president of the bus firm for which Ernst worked, said the 70-year-old hasn't driven for them since the accident, though that's not because of the pending charges.

"We just haven't talked about it," he said.

Richards, who described himself as Ernst's friend, said given the tragedy, he's not sure Ernst would want to drive a bus again.