A 32-foot pleasure boat slammed into a concrete navigational aid Aug. 12 on the Mississippi River south of Brownsville, Minn.
Two aboard died.
Five were injured, one critically.
It was one of the deadliest recreational boating crashes in the region, followed by a massive response and a complex investigation.
The boat’s owner, Gerald Ladsten, told authorities his vessel struck the concrete marker seconds after a passenger took the wheel.
But authorities determined Ladsten was the operator at the time of the crash, according to reports from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the agency that led the investigation.
Vernon County District Attorney Tim Gaskell declined to file charges, saying he can’t prove who was at the helm.
“There is no way to tell one way or the other,” he said.
‘Sinking like the Titanic’
Five of the seven spent their afternoon together on the boat. Aboard with Ladsten was his girlfriend, a friend and a married couple.
Just before 6 p.m., they picked up another couple at Lawrence Lake Marina, also in Brownsville.
Ladsten, of Spring Grove, Minn., told authorities that he got the boat on plane before he let passenger Kevin Hanson take the wheel about a quarter of a mile south of the marina, reports stated.
He saw the navigational marker and set the course of the boat to clear it by 100 feet.
Seconds later, Ladsten said, he saw the boat headed toward the marker, then only 75 feet away.
Stay right, he told Hanson.
Ladsten then grabbed the wheel while standing behind Hanson, according to reports.
It was stuck.
Ladsten reached for the throttle.
It was too late.
The boat slammed into the east side of the marker at 40 to 45 mph. The impact shredded the starboard side from the bow to the midline, leaving fiberglass pieces of the boat atop the pylon 15 feet above the surface.
Water poured in. The boat, Ladsten said, was “sinking like the Titanic,” according to reports.
He tossed life vests to the passengers thrown around the vessel.
Nearby boaters rescued them.
All but Hanson.
‘You had all of the above there’
The concrete pylon sits in the Mississippi River about 800 feet east of Wildcat Park and Marina in the Vernon County town of Bergen, just south of Brownsville.
The ice-resistant day beacon, there since the 1930s or ’40s, is a navigational aid for commercial traffic that defines the channel edge, U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Travis Cook said.
“It can be problematic for small crafts, but it has to be big and strong for large crafts,” he said.
The crash, authorities said, was a jurisdictional nightmare. The day beacon is in Wisconsin, about 60 yards east of the Minnesota border. Rescuers took victims from Wisconsin water to the Minnesota shoreline before transporting them back to Wisconsin for medical treatment.
More than 50 people from local, state and federal agencies and volunteer groups responded.
“Anytime we get one on a boundary line, it gets complicated,” DNR Lt. Tyler Strelow said. “You had all of the above there.”
Passenger Robert Klankowski, 52, of Spring Grove said Ladsten and Hanson took turns operating the boat throughout the day. The day of the crash was his first time on the boat.
Distracted by conversation with other passengers, Klankowski said he couldn’t remember who was at the wheel at the time of the crash, according to reports.
His wife, Diana Klankowski, did not survive the crash. She was 56. He needed a hip replacement and surgery to reconstruct his cheekbone and eye socket.
Wynn Ristau, 41, of Preston, Minn., and his girlfriend, 40-year-old Tracy Peterson of Spring Grove, climbed aboard at Lawrence Lake Marina minutes before the crash.
Ristau was seated at the back when he felt the boat tipping. The next thing he remembered was being on shore.
The impact threw Peterson forward, pinning one leg under the passenger seat and the other under the driver’s seat. The boat was sinking, Peterson said, and Ladsten was throwing life jackets to the injured before Peterson was rescued by another boater.
At the hospital, Ladsten told Ristau that he tossed him from the boat after impact so that he wasn’t pulled under with the sinking vessel.
Ristau, who suffered cracked facial bones, told authorities that he doesn’t recall seeing Hanson behind the wheel but couldn’t be sure who was driving at impact, according to reports.
Peterson heard Hanson ask to drive but she also didn’t know who was behind the wheel at impact.
Ladsten’s girlfriend, 47-year-old Sonya Burnikel of Spring Grove, sustained life-threatening injuries. She was never interviewed by authorities, Strelow said.
Rescuers searched the water for Hanson, of Mabel, Minn., and resumed the next morning. They found his body about 4:30 p.m. Aug. 13 using sonar equipment.
He died of head and chest trauma. He was 47.
‘Rip it apart’
Ladsten put the boat in the water at Wildcat Park and Marina before the group made its way north that afternoon, stopping at Moxie’s, Shenanigans and Castaway’s on the Island.
He told authorities in different interviews that he had two to six drinks throughout the afternoon, according to reports. He did not believe he or Hanson were drunk.
A Houston County sheriff’s deputy interviewed Ladsten in an ambulance at Wildcat Landing, where his supervisor told him to speak to Ladsten and determine “any further action,” reports stated.
As the deputy was walking to his squad car to retrieve a device that would determine Ladsten’s preliminary alcohol level, a supervisor told him by radio not to test him because the crash happened in another state.
No other officer administered the test, and Strelow can’t say whether it should have been done.
“It’s complicated,” he said.
Blood samples were collected from Burnikel, Robert Klankowski, Ristau and Peterson. Ladsten’s blood was not collected.
When interviewed at Gundersen Medical Center, where doctors treated Ladsten for three fractured ribs on his right side, he did not smell of alcohol, police noted.
He asked about Hanson during the interview, telling an officer the impact slammed him into Hanson, who slammed into the boat’s dash. He feared their combined body weight would have injured Hanson’s chest.
Ladsten, 57, blamed the steering wheel for the crash. Asked whether he would consent to an inspection of his boat, “rip it apart,” he said, according to reports.
A mechanic examined the steering mechanism three days after the crash.
Investigators concluded a mechanical issue was not to blame and determined Ladsten was the driver at the time of impact, although no witness placed him behind the wheel, according to reports.
He had a mark on his left check consistent with snaps atop the windshield frame and a cut on his chin, according to reports.
“There were injuries that lined up with him being in the cockpit,” Strelow said. “By his own admission, he grabbed the wheel and the throttle. That in and of itself puts him in operation of the vessel.”
Investigators referred the case to Gaskell to decide whether reckless homicide charges were appropriate.
“At the end of the day we could not put the survivor or the victim behind the wheel at the time of the crash,” Gaskell said.
Anne Jungen can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @LCTCrimeCourts.