A Waubun man has been sentenced to 19 months prison for a collision that caused the death of a man driving a UTV off-road vehicle.
Aaron Lee Pelham, 38, was sentenced in Becker County District Court for felony failing to stop after a collision that resulted in injury or death.
A felony charge of criminal vehicular homicide was dismissed in a plea agreement.
The charges stem from a two-vehicle accident in June 2019 in rural Becker County that resulted in the death of Michael J. Tibbetts, 27, of Ogema, according to a news release from the Becker County Attorney’s Office.
According to court records, on June 24, 2019, a White Earth tribal police officer was called to the scene of a crash involving a 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis driven by Pelham, and a 2015 Polaris Ranger side-by-side utility task vehicle driven by Tibbetts.
The officer found Tibbetts trapped in the UTV, which had extensive damage to its left front area. He had “obvious apparent traumatic injuries,” and medical responders excavated him and transported him to a Fargo hospital, where he died the next day.
The Grand Marquis had been abandoned at the scene, with heavy left front end damage and both airbags deployed, according to court records.
A man at the scene told the officer that Pelham had owned and been driving the Grand Marquis for the past six months. He added that Pelham had contacted both him and a woman through Facebook Messenger.
The woman told an investigator that Pelham had contacted her, telling her he was coming over. About 20 minutes later he called to say he had been in an accident and needed a “licensed driver,” so she went to the scene and found him standing between the Grand Marquis and the damaged Polaris. She said he appeared panicked and overheard him say “I think I killed him.” He then took off in a pickup truck driven to the scene by a friend, abandoned it a short ways down the road, and took off on foot into the woods.
Pelham’s driver’s license was canceled as inimical to public safety, and he has been convicted of driving after his license was canceled approximately 10 times since 2008, according to the criminal complaint.
On June 2, he was sentenced by District Judge Jay Carlson to 19 months in prison at St. Cloud, with credit for 346 days served in jail. He was ordered to pay $200 in court fines and $7,500 in restitution.
The April 21 plea agreement came as the case was moving toward trial, Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald said in a news release.
To prove the criminal vehicular homicide charge, the state would have had to prove, among other things, that Pelham was the “substantial cause” of the accident.
“As this case progressed close to trial, additional information was discovered about the circumstances of this crash that cast doubt on the state’s ability to prove this essential element of the crime,” McDonald said.
All lawyers, no matter their role, are bound by Rules of Professional Conduct, he added. Prosecutors are specifically subject to special rules, which include “the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate,” he said.
The Minnesota rules make clear that “this responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that, among other things, guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence,” he added.
So while the county attorney’s office could not ethically pursue the criminal vehicular homicide charge at trial, McDonald believes that Pelham was properly sentenced to the offense supported by the evidence.
“My thoughts remain with the Tibbetts/Fairbanks’ family over the tragic loss of their son and brother, Michael,” McDonald said.