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July 16, 2018

7/6/2018 12:04:00 PM
Victim's family admonishes driver in fatal crash to pay attention behind the wheel

A woman who, acording to statements made in the court, has  eight speeding ticket convictions, two texting while driving tickets, a license that’s been suspended twice, was cited for expired tabs two times,  and has a failure to stop at a stop sign infraction on her driving record,  would hardly be considered “lucky.”  

But at the sentencing June 27 of Heidi Butau, she was reminded how lucky she is.

Butau blew the stop sign on Acacia Trail and County Road 10 in northern Chisago County December 10 2017, and slammed into a vehicle,  and somehow did not kill herself or her 6-year-old passenger.  A 75-year-old Chisago County man, John Ploetz,  did lose his life as the result of that crash.

The sister of the victim, spoke at Butau’s sentencing and pointed out that Butau is lucky she didn’t injure or kill anybody those other times she was cited. She has her life ahead of her while the Ploetz siblings, children and grandchildren and John’s wife have holes in their hearts.

Ploetz was known for his volunteer spirit, he’d been Harris Legion Post 139 commander and he had, according to wife Joanne, “A perfect driving record.”

Joanne and other family members were in Judge Robert Rancourt’s courtroom last week, to read personal impact statements and witness a tearful apology from 

Judge Rancourt had no choice but to abide by the plea agreement, yet was clearly consternated by the mandate.    Referencing Butau’s history of driving infractions he said, “We have the right to expect that people are attentive on the road...I wish everybody could have heard what was said  (in the impact statements) here today.”

The judge pointed out that Butau, 45,  carries the burden knowing her actions cut short the life of a man with much to live for, as evidenced by the impact statements.  

Judge Rancourt told the family members their remarks had helped bring John to life for him and “... helped me understand what a wonderful man he was. He would have been proud.”   

Under the plea agreement Butau will actually spend more time in lock-up than what is standard for a stop sign infraction, but resolving this case is imperfect justice.

Family members told this reporter it’s been a roller coaster of plea agreement advances and then setbacks.  Relatives traveled to Center City for the sentencing from Duluth, Owatonna and one listened from Nevada via the court’s phone.  The group awaited Butau as the afternoon’s calendar of hearings was gone through--not even certain sentencing would happen.

Ploetz’s brother Julius said in his impact statement,  his brother’s quirky way of looking at life always made him smile.  

He added that he feels the “...emergency people at the scene didn’t do a very good job,”  in collecting evidence  to backup more serious charges.  There were questions as to whether cellphone use diverted Butau’s attention and the phone was handed over two weeks after the crash.

John did not pass away at the crash scene,  and the family says authorities explained that even though the vehicles sustained massive damage, on scene law enforcement didn’t immediately deem it a criminal offense.  

“There’s nothing that can be done about that now,” Julius Ploetz observed.

Assistant Chisago County Attorney Brian Duginske said all he could charge out  was a misdemeanor.  

When authorities finally accessed Butau’s cellphone, “For whatever reason the data had been wiped clean,” he said. Butau maintained she wasn’t doing anything negligent  and simply didn’t see the stop sign.

Restitution for funeral expenses, etc. is included in the sentencing, and parties have 30 days to agree on a sum.   Butau will serve about a week of a 90 day stayed sentenced, over two weekends come December.  Forty hours of Community Work Service is also part of the sentence and she must complete a safe driving class.

Regarding the alleged phone use, we checked with the County Attorney Janet Reiter on  statutory guidance for law enforcement.  

She said the issue of distracted driving is a leading cause of traffic crashes and fatalities.  In the interest of public safety an officer may ask for permission to inspect a driver’s phone to see if there’s been texting activity, or if a driver has been reviewing messages.

MN statutes prohibit a motorist to use a wireless communication device to compose, read or send an electronic message when the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic.  If a driver can be proven to have been driving in a grossly negligent manner, including cellphone use, they may face criminal vehicular operation charges.

John’s youngest sister Chris stood and looked directly at Butau when it was Chris’s turn to read her statement.

She said, “This incident was avoidable. I don’t call it an accident because accidents are unavoidable...and in my mind this was vehicular homicide.  I hope you make a plan. I hope you never use a phone again driving. I hope you teach your children.”



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