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Some of victim's family oppose plea deal in ATV case

Chad Robert Tabaka1 / 2
The impact of Chad Tabaka's ATV is 6 feet above the ground. Family members of Jessica Christopherson erected a memorial the next day. (Sarah Smith/ Enterprise)2 / 2

A tearful Chad Tabaka testified that he'd consumed numerous beers and mixed drinks May 1 when he lost control of his speeding ATV, crashed into a tree and killed his passenger.

Under a plea deal entered into Thursday, Tabaka, 31, of Walker, could spend a year in jail for the death of Jessica Lynn Christopherson, 31, of Benedict, on a roadway in the Paul Bunyan State Forest.

But strong family opposition came to light in Cass County District Court during the plea hearing that could threaten to derail the plea deal.

Under the plea agreement reached between Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne and defense attorney Michael Undem, Tabaka would spend a year in local jail followed by a year on electronic home monitoring and 500 hours of community service. He would be eligible for work release during his jail time. He will make restitution once the amount has been determined.

"It's too soft," said Christopherson's maternal uncle Gary Gehrke of Cass Lake. "If you go to the crime scene it was very malicious."

Christopherson's maternal aunt, Shelli Johnson, sobbed as she told Judge John Smith her niece's three children have all been sent to live in separate homes, one with a father the girl never knew.

"We live next to that road and know what the conditions were like," she said. "He was not only dangerous to my niece but dangerous to anyone else on that road."

The accident occurred on East Steamboat Forest Road about 6 p.m. that day.

Tabaka testified Thursday he "didn't remember exactly" how much he'd consumed.

"I think I had six or seven beers and a few mixed drinks," he testified, admitting the alcohol impaired his ability to drive.

Both Gehrke and Johnson implored Smith to visit the accident scene before formally sentencing Tabaka Sept. 15.

According to the criminal complaint, Tabaka was traveling 50-55 mph when his ATV left the roadway and struck the tree.

The impact mark on the tree is 6 feet above ground, indicating the ATV was airborne at the time of impact.

The deputy responding determined "if he went faster than 20 to 25 mph on the Forest Road his patrol unit would fishtail due to roadway conditions."

Christopherson died at the scene of multiple traumatic injuries.

Tabaka has one prior DWI in the past 10 years and a traffic record that includes 20 traffic and liquor-related violations since 1997.

Sheriff Frank Homer said he was driving with a valid driver's license at the time of the crash.

Under the plea agreement, if Smith accepts it, Tabaka will plead guilty to Criminal Vehicular Homicide and Injury, Under the Influence. A second charge of Criminal Vehicular Homicide and Third Degree DWI would be dismissed.

But the opposition, which blindsided Dearstyne and the judge, may undermine the agreement.

Dearstyne told Smith he had been contacted by the Christopherson family attorney, who told him the "family was on board" with the plea deal.

It wasn't until he arrived in court that he found otherwise. The attorney represents Chrisopherson's estate in a wrongful death lawsuit.

When asked why the two relatives hadn't been consulted about the plea deal, Johnson said they were not invited to attend the family meeting.

"We were told to stay out of it otherwise he wouldn't cooperate in the civil suit," she said over Undem's objections.

Dearstyne later explained that often times in a plea deal, criminal defendants are told they must cooperate in any subsequent civil matters.

"We try to help the victims out," he said.

Johnson and Gehrke were told they could submit victim impact statements before the sentencing and they would be considered in Smith's final decision.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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