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Sargent County officials find county worker passed out at controls of road grader; sheriff frustrated he wasn't told

By Archie Ingersoll / The Forum

FORMAN, N.D. – Sargent County Sheriff Travis Paeper says he wishes his office would have been called last week when county officials touring highway construction sites came across a county worker who was passed out behind the controls of a road grader idling in the middle of County Road 1 near Milnor.

But instead of the sheriff, the state’s attorney was called, and the worker, who resigned Friday, was given a ride home, Paeper said.

The group touring the work sites March 26 consisted of county Commissioners Mike Walstead, David Jacobson and Steve Wyum; county highway Superintendent Sparky Engquist; and four other highway officials. Engquist said the group at first thought the driver of the road grader had suffered a heart attack, but then they got closer.

“That’s when we noticed a bottle of brandy. Part of it had broken in the cab; the rest of it lay on the ground,” Engquist said. “We have eight witnesses. He was obviously drunk.”

Engquist said the operator of the road grader was his employee. It’s not clear when he started drinking, but he had been driving the road grader before it was found stopped on the road, Engquist said.

Having never encountered this sort of situation before, Engquist said he did not know whether to call Sheriff Paeper or State’s Attorney Lyle Bopp. Ultimately, Engquist ended up speaking over the phone with Bopp, who advised Engquist to put the worker in a vehicle and take him home. And that’s what happened.

Bopp “told me that was the right thing to do,” Engquist said.

On Wednesday, Paeper went on KFGO radio to discuss what happened. In response to Paeper’s airing of the issue, Bopp had little to say.

“I’m not going to get into a peeing contest with the sheriff. If he wants to talk, he can talk,” Bopp told The Forum.

Bopp said that if the sheriff had come across the driver of the road grader, the sheriff could have arrested him, but as a prosecutor, he does not have the power to make an arrest.

“We didn’t treat him (the driver) any different than anybody else in the county,” Bopp said, declining further comment.

In hindsight, Engquist regrets not calling the sheriff. But he maintains that the driver of the road grader, a county employee of nine years, was not given special treatment, even though the sheriff was not involved.

“Was he a safety issue? 100 percent. He was definitely outside the law,” Engquist said of his employee. “Absolutely no excuse for it, but it happens.”

The next morning, Paeper heard about what transpired, not from Engquist, the three commissioners present or the state’s attorney, but from county residents. By then, it was too late to investigate, the sheriff said.

“When I learned about it from members of the community, I wasn’t even sure if I believed that it took place or not because rumors are pretty rampant, especially in small areas,” he said.

The sheriff said he later confirmed the story by speaking with the state’s attorney and the three commissioners.

“I really wish the sheriff’s office would have been called or the Highway Patrol, so we could have done an investigation as to if there indeed was an impaired driver,” Paeper said.

The sheriff said he has not been given a good reason about why his office or the Highway Patrol were not alerted. He said he does not believe there was a cover-up attempt, but the way the matter was handled has given the public the impression there was.

“Under the heat of the moment, I don’t believe the right decisions were made,” he said. “In my eyes, as a law enforcement official, it seemed pretty cut and dry what should have taken place.”

Paeper said he does not believe the tour group or the state’s attorney did anything criminal, and he does not feel any investigation is needed. He hopes county officials can learn from the experience so that similar incidents in the future are dealt with properly.

“I want to continue to have a good working relationship with the state’s attorney’s office and the commissioners,” he said. “I hope this blemish doesn’t hinder that.”

Sarah Smith

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

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